Urban land and housing

South African cities face enormous challenges. Despite the provision of more than two million houses and associated services, the fundamentals of the apartheid city remain intact.

However, in a real sense one can at best speak of the (post) apartheid city in a way that recognises how little has changed spatially…In the absence of apartheid legislation, the technocratic clarity about who has a right to the city and who does not has fallen away. It is clear how political will (and lack thereof) private capital and often the political collusion of political power and private capital are mostly determining urban spatial arrangements. – Stephan F. de Beer (2016).

Spiralling unemployment, widening inequality and continuing urbanisation drive a growing demand for poor households to access well located urban land to secure livelihood opportunities in the city. Meeting this demand is central to a bigger project of urban restructuring to address deep spatial inequality.

Unequal scenes.

The persistence of spatial inequality

There is a damaging spatial divide between where most people live and where jobs and resources are located. The economy is much more concentrated geographically than the population, resulting in extensive unemployment and poverty for people living in the periphery, and imposing an imposing extra cost on their mobility (an ‘Apartheid tax’?) (Turok, I. et al. 2017).

South Africa’s cities and towns, after 22 years of democracy, are still characterised by spatial inequality and racial segregation. The evidence is clear:

  • most jobs and economic activity are concentrated around “urban cores”;
  • a predominantly white urban elite lives in well-located and serviced city cores, close to economic activity and social amenities;
  • the majority of black urban dwellers live on the urban peripheries in dense and poorly serviced dormitory settlements, requiring long and costly commutes to work and economic opportunities;
  • A number of factors make urban spatial inequality and the legacy of the apartheid city difficult to reverse:
    • colonial and apartheid planners purposefully designed a racially segregated urban form and cast this in concrete, complete with networks of highways, rail links and land use zoning schemes to create physical buffers between population groups;
    • post-apartheid housing policy has prioritised mass delivery of individually titled housing built on cheap land in peripheral locations. This has entrenched rather than disrupted existing patterns of spatial inequality;
    • well located state owned land in metropolitan areas has not been used to reintegrate and desegregate the city;
    • a strong urban property development lobby organises to protect its interests.

In the democratic era, housing policy makers assumed that providing people with subsidised houses would contribute to poverty reduction, but in practice this has had little impact (Charlton, S and Kihato,C. 2006). A Department of Human Settlements evaluation published in 2015 noted that subsidised housing units are sold “well below capital investment values” and that “poor location of projects in relation to employment opportunities and to socio-economic opportunities remains the most serious problem associated with the Housing Subsidy Programme”. The evaluation also reported that “fully subsidised government housing has had a negative effect on municipal finances” (Centre for Development Support. 2015).

Recent research suggests that “opportunities for poor people to live close to jobs” would have more impact than the current emphasis of the human settlements’ policy on the asset-based potential of housing ownership (Budlender, J. and Royston, R. 2016). Living in a badly-located area makes it more difficult to find a job but, at the same time, the costs associated with living in well-located areas are unaffordable for the poor. This is a quintessential poverty trap, which poses the difficult challenge of how to make well located and affordable options available for poor households.

Urban land and housing policy development

The development of new housing policy during the 1990s was influenced by the long history of private sector and state interventions in the housing sector. Corporations in the private sector had launched the Urban Foundation (UF) in 1977 in response to what they saw as the mounting urban crisis. Early statements by the UF leave no doubt as to what lay behind its original motivation to create an urban home-owning class:

Only by having this most responsible section of the urban black population on our side can the whites be assured of containing on a long-term basis the irresponsible economic and political ambitions of those blacks who are influenced against their own real interests from within and without our borders.  (Cited in Davies, R. 1984).

The apartheid state had also been involved in a range of initiatives which aimed to provide a social buffer in the urban areas through the creation of a home-owning black middle class. State initiatives included:

  • the introduction of a ninety-nine year leasehold scheme in 1977;
  • attempts to mobilise private sector support for the ‘black housing process” in line with recommendations contained within the report of the Viljoen Commission in 1982;
  • attempts to ensure “orderly urbanisation” on the urban periphery contained within the President’s Council urbanisation strategy;
  • a scheme to sell off some 500 000 state-owned houses to tenants with Section 10 rights which was launched in 1983, when banks were also encouraged to enter the low-income housing market.

The 1980s saw the formation of the United Democratic Front (UDF) in 1983 and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) in 1985, and the launch of the period of ungovernability. Prolonged rent, service and bond boycotts precipitated the collapse of the state and UF/ banking sector drive to promote homeownership.

The National Housing Forum established in 1993 negotiated the basis for new housing policy where the state would provide a range of housing subsidies to allow the private sector and community-based organisations to deliver housing and shelter.

The 1994 Housing White Paper anticipated the right of South African citizens to have access to adequate housing. This would be written into the final Constitution in 1996. The White Paper set out government’s commitment to provide “a permanent residential structure” and enable delivery of one million houses in five years. In a section on land use planning the White Paper noted:

As a key public sector intervention land use planning should serve a range of objectives. The objectives relevant to housing are:

  • to redress the spatial inequities and distortions that have resulted from planning according to apartheid and segregation policies of the past; 
  • to ensure that housing is developed on well-located land which promotes physical social economic and institutional integration of South African society (Department of Housing. 1994).

Emerging critique of housing policy and practice

Over time, a substantive critique of housing policy and practice developed which identified the limitations of the “width versus depth” and “market-centred” approaches. These were criticised as extensions of prior policies of the Urban Foundation and the Independent Development Trust which had failed to challenge the fundamentals of the apartheid city.

But at the same time, critics found it hard to resist calling out what they saw as the slow rate of subsidy disbursement and housing construction. It was these criticisms about programme performance, rather than those focused on policy fundamentals, to which government chose to respond. This spurred its attempts to speed up delivery and improve the numbers, rather than address the complex and contested process of unravelling apartheid planning.

Government focused on initiatives to accelerate delivery. Measures to address “delivery bottlenecks” met with significant success in that the government was able to deliver its first million houses – each comprising a 30 m² unit on a 250 m² plot of land – within seven years. This was a rate of delivery which remains “unparalleled internationally” (Rust, K. 2006). In the period 1994–2009 government built 2.8 million houses for almost 11 million people at a rate four times the level of private sector house construction in the same period. However despite this progress, 1.9 million people remained in informal dwellings, of whom 0.6 million were living in backyard shacks (Turok, I. 2011).

State housing policy frameworks have not assisted poor people to move to where opportunities are. Critics of housing policy identified the dangers of “a prescriptive top-down model of “delivering” housing and services” (South African Cities Network. 2011) and the inappropriateness of policies designed to eradicate  shacks rather than upgrade informal settlements.

A policy of slum eradication or replacement by formal housing in these areas is unhelpful, as most of those affected would probably not qualify for state housing, and they would in any case struggle to afford the accompanying running costs of electricity and water charges. Also unable to afford to rent upgraded housing, they would be displaced by better-off households and forced to move to the cheapest shack areas on the periphery. – (Cross, C. 2010).

Towards “spatial justice”

There are moves to re-emphasise spatial inequality and move it up the policy and planning agenda. The South African National Development Plan (NDP) lists spatial justice as one of its overarching principles for spatial development. In the NDP, spatial justice is explained as meaning that:

The historic policy of confining particular groups to limited space, as in ghettoisation and segregation, and the unfair allocation of public resources between areas, must be reversed to ensure that the needs of the poor are addressed first rather than last. (National Planning Commission 2012).

Spatial justice is also the first development principle in the Spatial Planning and Land Use Management Act of 2013 (SPLUMA). This principle creates a legal obligation that future spatial planning, land development and land use management must accord with the principle.

Despite these undertakings practical application will be challenging. The Integrated Urban Development Framework notes that:

Despite significant service delivery and development gains since 1994, apartheid spatial patterns have largely not been reversed. Indeed, in part because of the pressure to provide housing and services quickly after 1994, most of the post-1994 infrastructure investments have unintentionally served to reinforce the apartheid status quo. The cumulative effect is that it is harder to reverse apartheid geographies today than in 1994.   (COGTA. 2014).

This suggests that the urban space is increasingly going to be the focus of social contestation and that it is here that the land issue will need urgent resolution.

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