Maverick Citizen

Maverick Citizen Op-Ed

Sisulu’s new plan for informal settlements and formal housing a welcome break with the past

The proposed rapid land-release programme should go a long way to addressing the dire needs of people living in unhygienic informal settlements and in other overcrowded conditions by providing these people with at least a tenure-secure and basic serviced plot that can form the basis of a future ongoing incremental upgrading process, says the writer.(Photo: EPA-EFE / Nic Bothma)

Government appears to be shifting from building houses for the lucky few on top of the housing waiting list each year to providing serviced sites with tenure security to many more people, with only the neediest getting houses.

According to Business Day of 16 November 2020, Minister of Human Settlements, Lindiwe Sisulu, speaking in the National Council of Provinces in early November 2020, said that her ministry has “developed a model where we are going to be giving land to people for them to build their own houses”. She went on to elaborate that her ministry has a policy they “call rapid land release”.

“We will be releasing land, cutting it out, fencing it off and giving it to beneficiaries. We will be providing them with the essentials of how to build a house.”

One of the main reasons for this shift seems to be related to a recognition by the government that its budget is significantly shrinking due to a downturn in the economy that has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Afesis-corplan has been calling for years for a shift in the government’s human settlement policy from the government building houses for a few people each year to the government providing more people with access to (basic) serviced and tenure-secure land. We have noted that it will take years for the government to address the housing backlog at current housing delivery rates. In the meantime, this means that many people have to live for years in informal settlements and other overcrowded living conditions waiting for the government to build them a house.

This policy shift appears at first glance to be very similar to the Managed Land Settlement approach that Afesis-corplan and others have been promoting. We therefore support this shift in emphasis of the government from giving people houses to giving them serviced land, but caution that there are numerous details that need to be taken into account when making this shift. It is not just a simple matter of suddenly stopping building government-subsidised houses and now giving people land. The following points give a sense of what some of these details are that need to be considered.

  1. The government must continue to promote the upgrading of informal settlements as the first option for settlement development and only look to the relocation of informal settlement dwellers to new land as a last resort;
  2. Where land is made available, this land must not only be allocated to people who can afford to build their own formal houses, but most of the new land needs to be made available to the poor who are the majority of those in need of land for housing;
  3. The land-use management and building control rules and regulations of municipalities need to allow low-income households to use what limited resources they have to build their own temporary accommodation, even if this means that they build structures with material like corrugated iron and recycled wood;
  4. The government needs to accommodate a range of basic servicing options, depending on local circumstances, ranging from communal ablution blocks for clusters of households to individual water and toilet connections to each site; and the government needs to also accommodate a variety of tenure options from occupation certificates to unregistered (but surveyed) plots, lease agreements for people to occupy registered erven, and title deeds for those who qualify;
  5. The government must not just leave people who have acquired basic serviced and tenure secure land to fend for themselves when it comes to building their own houses – the government needs to  introduce a new housing support programme where it provides access to house plans, building and construction advice, access to cheap loans, support in establishing bulk-buying programmes, and much more;
  6. For those people who are unable to build or arrange the building of their own houses, such as the aged, people with disabilities, child-headed households and other destitute and people in need, the government needs to continue to provide a housing top-structure subsidy;
  7. The government must invest more time and resources into identifying and acquiring multiple portions of appropriate well-located land within each municipality for this rapid land release programme and not just settle for the cheapest and easiest land. New land parcels used in this programme need to fit within municipal spatial development framework plans and help restructure our cities away from apartheid spatial patterns that focused on separate development to more integrated settlement patterns where people live in much more mixed-use and mixed-income neighbourhoods closer to economic and social opportunities;
  8. Special attention needs to also be given to finding ways to promote higher density development and mitigate against low-density urban sprawl. This includes, for example, combining rapid land release approaches with other government housing and settlement development programmes like higher density social housing, and the promotion of new development within transit-oriented development (TOD) nodes and corridors. It also includes the government undertaking research and developing pilot projects that look at how more incremental approaches to housing development can be accommodated at higher densities and on smaller plots;
  9. The existing housing subsidy allocation process and criteria also need to be reviewed and updated to take into account that the government will be separating out the allocation of (basic serviced and tenure-secure) land, the provision of title deeds, and the building of top structures. The range of people who will be able to benefit from different aspects of the new rapid land release programme will probably expand. Many of the people who do not normally qualify for housing subsidies (such as people who earn outside the housing subsidy brackets, have already obtained a housing subsidy, are not South African citizens, etc) will now be eligible for aspects of the new rapid land-release programme, such as basic serviced sites with interim tenure recognition; and
  10. Finally, the government must not identify land and plan or design new settlements in rapid land-release areas in a top-down manner but they need to work in a more bottom-up way with people in need of land and housing by also identifying and planning these new settlements in partnership with the government.

This shift in the government’s human settlement policy is not unexpected. In the 2019 election manifesto of the ruling party, the ANC promised to “release land… for site and service to afford households the opportunity to build and own their own homes”, and to “accelerate the transfer of title deeds… as part of the rapid land-release programme that makes parcels of land available for those who want to build houses themselves”.

Earlier, in Sisulu’s budget vote speech of 18 May 2017, she said that “we are now concentrating on serviced sites. The HDA [Housing Development Agency] has identified land for our purpose, ensuring that it is serviced. It will be partitioned and people would be able to move to their own stand and build their own houses, through a monitored PHP [enhanced Peoples’ Housing Process] programme, managed by the Deputy Minister. These are now our urgent interventions for massive roll-out.”

Changes in policy directions made in announcements like these (in May 2017, in November 2020 and at other times) are not good enough: for one it leads to uncertainty and confusion for the public and government officials. Who is to say that the most recent policy change announcement of November 2020 will not find the same fate as the May 2017 policy change announcement with nothing changing in the way that municipal and other government officials deal with human settlements?

What do officials in provincial and local government do after announcements like these? Do they change what they are doing and suddenly shift to this new approach (just because it has been made in a speech by the minister), or do they carry on with the existing clearly defined human settlement policies and programmes like they have been doing for more than a decade?

The government needs to come out with a much clearer and comprehensive policy-change message. In the short term, the minister needs to make a more formal announcement informing provinces and municipalities on this proposed policy shift. This announcement needs to be accompanied by a comprehensive awareness-raising drive where it is explained why this shift has happened and how they expect municipalities and provinces to act going forward.

In the medium term, the government needs to formally work to develop a new policy on rapid land release and translate this policy into programmes with associated budget allocations. Ideally, this new policy needs to be an outcome of a new human settlement policy (to replace the 2004 “Comprehensive Plan for the Development of Integrated Sustainable Human Settlements – Breaking New Ground”.

However, if the government is unable to finalise this new human-settlements policy in a short enough time period, at least it needs to develop a rapid land-release policy explaining why they are making this shift and explain exactly what the shift entails.

Processes of debating this proposed rapid land-release policy in Parliament and its committees need to be followed and the public needs to be consulted on this draft policy. A parallel process can take place where the government, with further public input, also develops a draft rapid land-release programme and/or revises existing chapters of the housing code making it possible for the existing programmes to be used in support of the new rapid land-release approach.

This proposed rapid land-release programme should go a long way to addressing the dire needs of people living in unhygienic informal settlements and in other overcrowded conditions by providing these people with at least a tenure-secure and basic serviced plot that can form the basis of a future ongoing incremental upgrading process. There are however a lot of details that need to be taken into account when implementing this new policy shift.

Further consultation and debate are needed so that the views of all stakeholders can be considered when addressing these details. MC/DM

Ronald Eglin is the Sustainable Settlement Specialist at Afesis-corplan, an NGO based in East London, Eastern Cape. He holds a Master’s in City and Regional Planning from the University of Cape Town and has been working with informal settlements for more than 25 years. His present work predominantly focuses on land access and sustainable settlement work. He writes in his personal capacity.

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