The global trend of rapid urbanisation has resulted in more than half of the world’s population of seven billion people living in cities. And about one billion urban dwellers live in informal settlements, a number that is projected to increase to three billion by 2030, according to the United Nations Human Settlements Programme.
In sub-Saharan African cities, about 55% of urban dwellers live in slums, a figure that is significantly higher than the global average of 30%. Unplanned urbanisation has fuelled the continuous increase in the number of informal settlements.
Government reports suggest that, between 2002 and 2016, informal settlements in South Africa have increased from 300 to 2225. By May, assessed and recorded informal settlements were said to number about 3200. Based on existing knowledge, about 1.3-million households — almost five million people — live in informal settlements in and around the major metropolitan cities of Cape Town, Johannesburg, eThekwini, Buffalo City, Nelson Mandela Bay and Mangaung. Two of many examples of overcrowded informal settlements are Duncan Village in East London’s Buffalo City metro, where about 21 000 families occupy a piece of land on which only 4000 RDP houses can be built, and Kennedy Road in the Clare Estate suburb in eThekwini metro, where almost 6000 shacks occupy 10 hectares.
In the face of these circumstances, the Covid-19 pandemic’s social and economic effect on urban informal settlement dwellers is harsh. As South Africa and the world braced for the coronavirus pandemic with messages of frequent hand washing or sanitising, and self-isolation of the sick, the informal settlements were the least prepared. This because basic needs such as an on-site water supply and sanitation, effective drainage, waste collection, access to healthcare, and secure and adequate food and housing are already in short supply.
The poverty levels in informal settlements are evident in the space constraints, overcrowding and overlapping or clustered house designs — features that are a conducive environment for the rapid spread of communicable diseases.
What the Covid-19 pandemic has achieved is to put the spotlight on the numerous deficiencies in our informal settlements.
We need to question whether the democratic order is truly pro-poor. Officials are known, during this pandemic, to have seized opportunities for self-enrichment. The media has reported that some were replenishing their pantries with food parcels earmarked for those trapped in congested shack settlements. This raises a question as to whether such heartless incidents are a reflection of governance maladies, including the seemingly intractable barrier to the extension of public services to dense informal settlements.
This leads to another question relating to subsidy-eligible housing beneficiaries. Reports and studies have found that housing beneficiaries remain in informal settlements despite their RDP houses having long since been completed. Why? One answer is the houses were re-allocated to non-subsidy eligible people through devious lease agreements.
This continues while the government keeps pumping funds into moral regeneration programmes and referring to fraud and corruption as a societal problem that requires multi-sector and multiagency effort.
In the absence of sufficient action, the informal settlements expand, with houses built from makeshift materials on land they’ve occupied unlawfully in a process that doesn’t follow national building regulations and urban planning authorisations, and thus does not offer any security of tenure to the inhabitants.
Failure to observe town planning regulations further results in some informal settlements being established on environmentally sensitive — and dangerous — spaces such as flood plains and landfill dump sites with hazardous gaseous emissions that affect people’s health, or land that is protected for heritage and archaeological considerations.
The key drivers of informal settlements growth in South Africa remain:
- The exclusionary apartheid planning regulations, the main intent of which was to create racially-based residential segments in urban areas;
- Rural migration to cities and secondary towns in search of economic and livelihood opportunities;
- Ease of access to social infrastructure such as education, health and sport amenities that are historically concentrated in urban areas; and
- Migration by inhabitants from other African countries in search of perceived better opportunities that came with the post-apartheid democratic dispensation.
Some informal settlements arise from a politically-motivated drive to grab land as a silent social movement aimed at expediting the equitable redistribution of land.
All these issues underpin the requirement for a new human settlements policy trajectory that achieves the goals and policies for informal settlements. The history of reform in this sector is not good.
With the introduction of the Breaking New Ground Strategy in 2004, a housing subsidy programme dedicated to the upgrading of informal settlements was introduced. This programme was aimed at eradicating informal settlements by 2014 in concert with the Millennium Development Goal targets.
The human settlements sector set a target of providing housing with basic services (water, sanitation, electricity) to 400 000 informal settlement households by 2014. According to government reports and statements, both targets have not been realised. This is reiterated by housing researchers who argue that there is a notable gap between the policy rhetoric to address homelessness and the implementation across all municipalities.
At the heart of this disconnect are inconsistencies in programme implementation, poor programme management and technical capacity in
municipalities, tensions over centralised decision-making with respect to subsidy allocation and supply-chain management, reduced roles for peoples’ participation, and housing delivery value-chain fraud and corruption that has not been decisively acted on.
These are not new issues. To try to address them, in 2009 the human settlements sector introduced the National Upgrading Support Programme, a national government response that was intended to support the upgrading of all informal settlements through capacity-building in local municipalities.
The provincial informal settlements upgrading strategy is the main implementation tool to ensure that informal settlement upgrading projects are successfully executed. Guided by the Upgrading of Informal Settlements Programme subsidy instrument in the National Housing Code (2009), this strategy also sets out to ensure that other plans related to matters such as the prevention of illegal and unauthorised occupation of land are developed and implemented.
Uupgrading plans and strategies for informal settlements are supported by fiscal tools embodied in the national grants framework managed by treasury. The human settlement development grant provides for the building of houses with water, electricity and sanitation services linked to the municipal bulk supply.
There is also an Urban Settlements Development Grant that is transferred to metropolitan municipalities, which provides for land assembly and servicing prior to housing construction taking place, with other municipalities utilising the municipal infrastructure grant for this purpose.
At the heart of successful informal settlement upgrading programmes is inter-governmental cooperation and collaboration through the numerous local and national programmes. But because of a weak integrated and spatial development planning function, inequitable resource allocation, indecisive and unstable leadership and management in municipalities, government service delivery planning and implementation has remained the preserve of different sectors across the spheres of government, with the needs of informal settlement dwellers, in many instances, falling through the cracks.
We are yet to see the effective monitoring of service delivery by relevant ministries, the invoking of accountability on budgets by the treasury, and consequence management for inappropriate behaviour by law enforcement agencies.
The socioeconomic rights in the Constitution remains a pie in the sky for the urban poor. The so-called born-frees are beginning to lose the meaning of freedom as they drop out of the education system to swell the ranks of the indigent and poor in municipality registers — and join the queue for low-income houses.
While the focus of government response to the Covid-19 pandemic in urban informal settlements is on mitigating the effect of this public health crisis on vulnerable households, the medium-and long-term response should be premised on the transformation of the urban landscape. A multisector and multiagency summit will be required to rethink the overarching human settlements policy and then to proactively address it.
Sijekula Mbanga is associate professor and chair of human settlements at Nelson Mandela University