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Transforming urban realities: the need for responsive strategies

Adoné Kitching is a policy researcher in the Urban Land Programme at Isandla Institute, a public interest think-tank focused on fostering just, equitable and democratic urban settlements. Adoné currently coordinates a project that facilitates engagement between practitioners in the field of participatory informal settlement upgrading. The project aims to strengthen the practice of participatory upgrading in South Africa through knowledge sharing, collaboration and partnership.

There is a need today to rethink the attitudes and strategies with which we approach human settlements. The ongoing Lwandle inquiry, as well as the Minister of Human Settlements’ recent budget speech, indicates that South Africa finds itself at a critical juncture. Decisions about housing, informality and the rights of property owners and the urban poor will have a marked impact on the future of development in the country.

The upcoming Outcome 8 agreement will set the stage for the next five years of interventions aimed at bettering South Africans’ quality of life. As we await its final iteration, it is necessary to consider the theory of change that currently drives the actions of the Department of Human Settlements. Are the strategies for transformation proposed by the state adequate to address growing inequality, injustice and segregation in the country?

Throughout her recent budget speech the Minister of Human Settlements, Lindiwe Sisulu, outlines the goals that her department hopes to achieve in its upcoming term. The minister makes reference to Breaking New Ground, a document formally espoused in 2004 that signalled a shift in post-Apartheid housing policy. While the minister’s address is adamant about the importance of Breaking New Ground, she neglects to mention one of its most progressive provisions.

Breaking New Ground was instrumental in highlighting the value of incremental in situ informal settlement upgrading as a strategy for building safe and adequate living environments. In a recent piece in the Daily Maverick, Lauren Royston and Stuart Wilson from SERI note that informal settlement upgrading is essential for providing affordable housing at scale. The upgrading approach also recognises the need for both physical and social infrastructure. In addition to the provision of sufficient shelter and access to basic services and amenities, upgrading interventions emphasise the need for building the capacities of urban communities.

If South Africa faces, as the Minister suggests, “alarming” rates of urbanisation, then informal settlement upgrading offers a viable strategy for dealing with rapid growth and transformation. Such an approach can ensure that the basic needs of millions of urbanites are met, and that residents are empowered to engage with the state as equal partners in development.

During her previous stint in the Department of Human Settlements, the Minister was vocal about the need to eradicate informal settlements. Hopefully her omission of upgrading in the recent budget address does not point to a resurgence of this kind of language.

In neglecting informal settlement upgrading, the minister also ignores policies formulated over the last ten years. Significant paradigms shifts have occurred in the decade since the Minister first left the portfolio. In 2009 the National Housing Code instigated the Upgrading of Informal Settlements Programme to be enforced in municipalities across the country. Subsequently, the National Upgrading Support Programme was designed as an instrument to assist the Department of Human Settlements in implementing upgrading interventions. The previous Outcome 8 agreement, formalised in 2010, also made explicit reference to upgrading. The document noted that interventions focused entirely on state-driven housing provision would be insufficient to respond to the realities faced in the country’s urban areas.

The value of upgrading for residents in South African cities is already evident in the work of civil society organisations. In Sheffield Road, an informal settlement in Cape Town, the Community Organisation Resources Centre supported the local community in addressing some of the community’s most pressing issues through upgrading interventions. Through collaborative mapping exercises and enumerations to identify the immediate needs of residents, and through re-blocking, the community was given access to adequate water and sanitation facilities and to public space.

There are numerous other examples of upgrading projects that have resulted in safer, more accessible settlements that build, rather than erode, the well-being of residents. In South Africa spatial segregation and socio-economic inequality are not issues that will be resolved easily. It is clear, however, that the provision of housing opportunities alone will not be sufficient for building sustainable and responsive living environments. At this critical juncture, informal settlement upgrading will have to feature on the human settlements agenda.

Moreover, the creation of liveable, sustainable environments is a process that will require a concerted effort by multiple stakeholders. The minister’s budget speech calls for ‘all of society’ to participate in the making of integrated human settlements, and yet the banking sector is the only social partner mentioned here.

By the Minister’s own admission, the language of housing delivery creates expectations and entitlements amongst South Africa’s urban poor. But if the state continues to act as sole provider of housing, then expectations and entitlements will continue to grow. This approach forces communities to wait, and to expect. And when the waiting becomes too long, what other course of action is there but for residents to demand what they have been promised?

Recent cases of land invasion as well as continuous community-based protest action should be evidence enough of the fact that residents are not passive. Rather, communities are key to the formulation and implementation of appropriate and robust development projects.

It is then, firstly, essential that the state recognises the voices of the urban poor. Secondly, it must create platforms for meaningful community participation, and become a structure that empowers residents by building their capability to improve their own living conditions. For communities to realise their role as active and equal partners in development, the state will also have to invest significant effort in building parks, recreational facilities, schools and clinics.

Organised civil society, too, has a critical role to play in meeting South Africa’s development goals. Social movements and organisations in the non-profit sector are engaged in the everyday working of urban communities and are sensitive to realities on the ground. These organisations often have access to skills, capabilities and resources that allow for effective interventions.

Over the next five years, collaboration between multiple actors with an interest in the creation of integrated and sustainable human settlements will be vital.

The current state of affairs suggests that there is a mismatch between the state’s proposed strategies for transformation and the reality faced in South African cities today. Rapid population growth coupled with housing backlogs and dwindling delivery rates make it clear that the road ahead will not be an easy one. But the challenge of human settlements can be met through responsive approaches such as in situ informal settlement upgrading, and through collaborative processes that draw on the skills of multiple partners. DM

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Adoné Kitching is a Policy Researcher in the Urban Land Programme at Isandla Institute.


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