South Africa


Urban land reform: Start with informal settlements

Residents protest for better services at Marikana informal settlement in Philippi East, Cape Town. (Photo: Velani Ludidi / GroundUp)

In his State of the Nation Address, President Cyril Ramaphosa declared that faster economic growth requires accelerated land reform in rural and urban areas and a clear property rights regime. Until now land reform has been a rural programme. What does the inclusion of ‘urban’ mean for the millions of people living in our cities and towns without equitable access to land?

Informal settlements are the most visible manifestation of inequitable land access in urban areas. Urban informal settlements are the fastest-growing household sector in South African cities. According to the Housing Development Agency, more than 4 million people or 1.25 million households currently live in urban informal settlements. The availability of affordable, well-located, serviced land remains a significant challenge and poses a major obstacle to the realisation of the constitutional right of access to adequate housing and access to land on an equitable basis.

The Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa (SERI) launches a new informal settlement research series on Friday 5 July. SERI’s in-depth qualitative research into the lived realities of informal settlement residents has some answers to the urban land reform question.

The site-based research occurred in Ratanang informal settlement in Klerksdorp (City of Matlosana), Marikana informal settlement in Philippi (City of Cape Town) and Siyanda informal settlement in KwaMashu (eThekwini Municipality) over two years.

Looking across the three sites the research confirms that informal settlements are not “informal” places to live. People organised themselves individually and collectively to secure access to land where the market, the economy and the state were failing. They organised their residential and economic land uses, they self-provisioned access to the most rudimentary services and imposed their own order on an environment that existed without formal recognition. They defended against eviction, often brutal, often on multiple occasions.

Despite a shrinking economy and limited opportunities for productive income, they found ways to make a living using, among other strategies, social grants. They made their voices heard in multiple spaces: the courts, the municipality when they could get an audience, ward committees, local representative committees. Their claims were both demands for land and to belonging — and they actively created a sense of community.

However, their claims were challenged at every turn. Despite their considerable agency, resilience and organisation, the occupiers confronted multiple contestations in their daily lives: a housing allocation system unable to cope with the scale of demand or the complexity associated with competing claims, their interactions with councillors, access to electricity from neighbouring areas, strategies and tactics between leaders, which residents legitimately “count” as the households in line for future development, over the right to housing and private property.

State agencies have been unwilling to acknowledge the role of informal settlements. They are often reduced to illegal places to live and neglected as a viable approach for people to build a home in the city and secure a livelihood. Informal settlements are often relatively well located in terms of access to economic opportunities, transportation and social facilities. They provide affordable rental accommodation or land for self-built shelter. They are an entry point into an urban environment for urbanising households.

Despite the critical functions informal settlements provide, the prevailing physical conditions often pose serious threats to the well-being of residents: inadequate access to safe water, sanitation, electricity and insecure tenure.

The Upgrading of Informal Settlements Programme provides a good policy framework for improving the lives of informal settlement residents. It has the potential to secure access to land and basic services. However, implementation according to the in situ and participative intentions of the programme has not lived up to this potential. Instead, the relocation of informal settlements to vacant land far from cities and work opportunities for greenfield development and “roll-over” upgrading remain common practices amongst municipalities. In the process, decades of community organisation are erased and relocated residents are often left worse off than they were before.

SERI’s research offers insights into an alternative approach to upgrading informal settlements. As a starting point, municipal and provincial interventions should begin by recognising the local norms, practices and agency which already exist in informal settlements. This requires government officials to work closely with residents and local leadership structures to both identify and understand lived realities, existing practices and challenges.

Securing their residential status is the main priority for residents. A street address and proof of residence are pre-requisites for interacting with society outside the settlement and with the formal economy. Enumeration, local lists and shack numbering worked like local land records. Rules about newcomers and one home per household were widespread. Land governance arrangements hold important clues for upgrading interventions. They provide markers for layout planning that build on what already exists. Existing activity routes, internal neighbourhood blocks, locally-designated land for social use, open space and economic activity should be the starting point for layout planning.

Household livelihoods are adversely affected by lack of access to basic services. Occupiers identified their urgent need for access to basic services to improve quality of life. The provision of basic services as an interim measure can significantly reduce the social, economic, health and financial burden on the residents of informal settlements. It can also prevent the outbreak of disaster such as fire as well as public health risks. Other priorities were access to visible and effective policing to improve safety and security and opportunities for residents to participate in inclusive processes to meaningfully engage with the State about their settlements. Over and above the material needs for access to land and services, the research also found that achieving recognition and a sense of belonging were fundamental to residents.

In his State of the Nation Address, the President also acknowledged that “many South Africans still need land to build homes and earn livelihoods”. In fact, many South Africans are doing what they can, where the market excludes and the state hasn’t delivered. However, the livelihoods of informal settlement residents are constrained by their precarious residential circumstances and rudimentary access to services. A major mind-shift is needed in government to recognise the agency of informal settlement residents and to ease the multiple contestations which place a heavy burden on millions of South Africans.

Upgrading informal settlements should be an urban land reform priority. DM

Lauren Royston is a senior associate at the Socio-Economic Rights Institute (SERI). Tiffany Ebrahim is a researcher at SERI.


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