Informal Settlements in South Africa


CAPE TOWN, South Africa — The right to adequate housing was declared in the progressive South African constitution in 1994. Section 26 defines the right of all people to have “adequate housing.” With an ever-increasing urban population, the expansion of informal settlements in South Africa will require the government and NGOs to work together to find safer solutions.

The Reconstruction and Development Programme

The Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), introduced by the ANC government in 1994, set up a government-funded housing program to house low-income residents. Between 1994 and 2005, the government had built 1.8 million brand new basic government houses as a part of the program. Since the program was introduced in 1994, around four million houses have been built and allocated to needy families and individuals.

Bu,t progress has slowed in recent years, and the government is unable to keep up with the demand for RDP housing. In some areas, housing backlogs have led to extensive waiting periods for free government housing. This issue has perpetuated the existence of informal housing settlements, or slums, in and around South Africa’s cities and townships. Over the past several decades, informal settlements in South Africa have grown in size and population.

Shacks Instead of Houses

By 2014, 23 percent of the urban population in South Africa were living in informal housing settlements or “shacks,” which are generally built poorly out of tin and other materials. Living in informal settlements in South Africa is dangerous and uncomfortable. There is often no sanitation or plumbing, no running water and no electricity. Furthermore, urbanization in the last 10 years has increased the number of South Africans relying on informal accommodations.

Disorder, violence, and insufficient social resources in shack settlements have caused controversy among residents and surrounding communities. In 2005, thousands of shack-dwellers in Durban marched to the mayor’s office to demand the government provide necessary resources and RDP houses. Many of the protestors were members of Abahlali, a movement that represents residents of informal settlements. Shack-dweller protesters were demanding better housing, sanitation and basic resources. After all, the South African Constitution lists these amenities as universal rights.

Other protests have rocked South Africa for similar reasons. In Pretoria, shack-dwellers set fire to the home of a city council member, and sewage-contaminated water led to riots in a township outside of Johannesburg. In total, 881 slum-dweller protests occurred in 2004, a number much higher than preceding years. Many of these protests were violent and disruptive to the surrounding communities and drew attention to the insufficiency of government housing programs.

Reasons Behind the Housing Crisis

The Borgen Project interviewed Imraan Buccus, a senior research associate at the Auwal Socio-Economic Research Institute in South Africa and political analyst for various Durban news stations and papers. He identifies urbanization and unemployment as key drivers of poor access to housing in the country. From 2007 to 2017, the percentage of South African residents living in urban areas had risen from 60 to 65.

Baccus believes that the cities represent hope for a large portion of the impoverished and unemployed population. Unfortunately, recent migration has caused overcrowding in urban areas, and the national and municipal authorities have been overwhelmed by the influx. Another issue faced is that the informal settlements in South Africa are unregulated and, therefore, are often built in dangerous locations like river banks. City by-laws mandate that these shacks by removed for public safety reasons.

Alternative Plans for Slums

Once hostile towards the informal settlements, the Durban city government is beginning to consider more progressive solutions. Buccus mentioned “integrated housing” plans that would incorporate state-sponsored, lower-income housing in wealthier, better-resourced areas of the city, like Umhlanga. The provincial government may also be warming towards the idea of “cities with slums,” which would mean incorporating slums into city planning to ease growth and improve slum conditions. More than 90 percent of urbanization in the past twenty years is due to slum expansion. The majority of this growth is occurring in Africa.

Some scholars argue that the informality of slums creates a more flexible environment for innovative planning and growth. Shantytowns can be converted into semi-autonomous self-governing “microcities” whose governing bodies would have the resources, knowledge and connections to improve infrastructure, social services and the quality of life for its inhabitants. However, due to the recent May elections and a shift in leadership, the current position of the city on informal settlements and planning is unclear, according to Buccus.

Urban-Think Tank

Urban-Think Tank (U-TT) is a Swiss nonprofit organization working to upgrade informal settlements near Cape Town in order to accommodate expansion and encourage upward mobility among slum residents. The organization believes that the rapidly growing informal settlement population requires a denser planning scheme. U-TT’s “Empower Shacks” are built of cheap but durable materials, feature two-stories and include basic sanitation and kitchen facilities. They can also be modified according to resident preference and financial ability.

The two-story model will help house more families in a smaller amount of space. U-TT has engaged the community in Khayelitsha, an informal township on the edge of Cape Town, and has built 25 sturdy, leak-proof two-story shacks with government permission. The organization hopes to gain the trust of the community and the commitment of local and municipal governments to revamp informal settlements across the city and change the public opinion on informal development.

Urbanization is creating problems across the African continent. Slums are growing faster than ever. It is important to consider progressive solutions to urban overcrowding that engage communities, government and non-government entities. Organizations like U-TT and governing bodies are beginning to consider and test innovative strategies to enhance the quality of life in these informal settlements in South Africa.
Hopefully, these strategies will be perfected and passed on across the globe to benefit the world’s poor.

Nicollet Laframboise
Photo: Flickr


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