Give them land and they will build, suggests Gauteng Premier David Makhura in response to the housing backlog and widespread land occupations. The premier's rapid land release programme has been welcomed but such policies are complex and could lead to further challenges if not done right.
To combat the political and social instability caused by mass urbanisation and landlessness after 1994, the Gauteng government decided to implement an incremental housing programme. Land was released under the Mayibuye project, serviced and people were given assistance to build their own homes.
The programme wound down in 2003 after land became scarce and politicians and the public focused on the provision of completed RDP houses and upgrading informal settlements.
Gauteng is again experiencing social and political upheaval over housing shortages and landlessness and Premier David Makhura wants to revive the policy. Providing land for people to build their own houses sounds like a simple solution and is likely to win votes for Makhura’s ANC, but past examples show the policy is inherently complex.
The “rapid land release” policy made a comeback at last year’s Human Settlements Summit when speakers called for a renewal of the “site and service” approach. Former Gauteng Human Settlements and Co-operative Governance MEC Paul Mashatile recognised the need to move beyond providing RDP housing.
“Today we want to begin a journey together of identifying land‚ servicing land and allocating it to people so that they can build for themselves,” Mashatile said in November. “We will allocate people serviced stands so that they build houses‚ not shacks,” he continued. “We want proper structures. We want shacks to come to an end.”
The Gauteng government says its housing backlog sits at 600,000 units and the beginning of 2018 has been marked by housing protests and occupations of land. There has been 4,419 incidents of illegal land occupation in the last two years, according to the province, and that’s excluding those in Johannesburg.
“Everywhere I go I hear people say give us land we will build for ourselves; others say we want to buy the land but the price of the prime land is expensive in Gauteng,” Makhura said in Eldorado Park last weekend after a recent protest.
The premier has appointed a five-member team, led by Human Settlements MEC Uhuru Moiloa and including the mayors of Ekurhuleni and Tshwane, to develop a plan and identify unused, government-owned land to hand over to citizens for housing and economic development.
“The basic underlying logic behind the site and service model is that the state should provide serviced land at scale and other actors (namely households) should be responsible for housing construction,” reads a 2012/13 research paper from the Western Cape Department of Human Settlements in collaboration with the Sustainable Human Settlements CityLab and African Centre for Cities.
“The history of site and service schemes in developing cities tells a story of limited success and continued challenge, particularly in addressing the needs of the very poor,” it continues. The policy, which has a long tradition in South Africa, is complex and has had varying degrees of success across the country.
“I’d say the history of rapid land release or ‘site and service’ schemes in South Africa has been a chequered one,” said Associate Professor Sarah Charlton from Wits University. The policy fell out of favour towards the end of apartheid, she said. There were some “innovative” initiatives after 1994 but they were limited in part due to opposition from host communities.
“I think there is increasing appetite for it and that we should be doing it as part of a package of initiatives – though there are important things to consider such as where land is being sourced,” said Charlton.
Identifying well-located land to release is a key challenge. As a last resort, the Mayibuye project expropriated land, but almost 20 years on Makhura’s project is only looking at government-owned land. A 2010 report commissioned by Afesis-corplan titled Towards Managed Land Settlement looked at five examples of site and service programmes across South Africa.
Existing residents of areas marked for site and service releases in Gauteng rallied against the project.
“Not-In-My-Back-Yard (NIMBY) syndrome was very strong. It has been suggested that this was exacerbated by the fact that although the sites were formalised and serviced, they still looked like an informal settlement for a long time,” said the report.
Such policies allow for flexibility but at the same time the government can cede control of standardised building regulations. As houses are slowly erected, semi-formal developments can spring up causing anger among existing residents. In Gauteng, people started by erecting shacks and support for building was slow to follow.
Liza Rose Cirolia, a researcher at the African Centre for Cities, said site and service policies are the dominant form of housing delivery in the developing world and Makhura’s plan could work well. But there needs to be a high level of co-ordination between government departments and other stakeholders.
“Releasing land without bringing to the table small-scale contractors, micro-finance providers and pre-approved building plans will not work well,” she said. Those who receive stands rarely build their own houses, instead hiring contractors and building in stages and thus require ongoing support.
“I think the evidence is that incremental housing delivery can result in good living environments if appropriate forms of support are given (for example with regard to finance, training of builders, access to materials, advice on house plans, etc), as houses can be designed by individual households to meet their particular needs,” said Warren Smit, also from the African Centre for Cities.
Makhura has so far provided a political response to a policy challenge, which may or may not be implemented. “Incremental housing ideology has often struggled in its translation to formal policy and state-led provision,” reads the 2012/13 research paper.
Government departments struggle with the concept of informal development and the success of such policies is both hard to measure and requires strong coordination between many stakeholders, between different levels of government and its agencies, community groups, civil society organisations, developers and finance institutions.
The research paper suggested the state should offer flexible alternative zoning and building regulations and help facilitate financing for housing. Programmes must be nuanced, taking into account issues of location, infrastructure, services, tenure, how plots are allocated, and ongoing support for constructing homes.
If it goes ahead, the rapid land release programme won’t be a silver bullet to Gauteng’s housing challenges, nor will it be quick, even if implemented correctly. There have been successes and failures in the past, and there’s no judging Makhura’s plans until a plan is released.
“This will result in more problems if not handled properly, as there are no plans and no timeline on how the process of issuing land will unfold,” DA MPL Mervyn Cirota warned this week.
Land reform and housing are two decisive issues heading into the 2019 election and President Cyril Ramaphosa dealt with both during his address at the launch of the ANC’sThuma Mina campaign in Tembisa on Friday.
This weekend in Ekurhuleni the ANC will hold a land summit on its plans to expropriate land without compensation. DM
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