South Africa — key to putting informal settlements on the Habitat III agenda

(This report is part of an ongoing series looking at the issues and actions that characterize select countries’ engagement in the Habitat III process; read more in this series here. See also Citiscope’s explainer “Who are the Habitat III major players?”)

Over the past several months, South Africa was instrumental in bringing the issue of informal settlements into the discussions around Habitat III, this year’s major urbanization summit. In April, the country hosted an official meeting on the issue that resulted in a key list of recommendations for the drafting of the New Urban Agenda, the global strategy that will come out of the Habitat III conference in October.

“What we wanted to do is actually bring this as close to the top of the agenda of UN-Habitat as is possible,” said Lindiwe Sisulu, South Africa’s minister of human settlements, referring to the U. N. agency that is leading the Habitat III process. “If one out of every seven people in the world lives in slums, then it is a clear and present problem. And it’s not just a present problem: It’s a present, continuous problem.”

[See: Participatory approach key to informal settlements, Habitat III sessions urge]

While informal settlements have been on the international agenda for years, Habitat III is seen as an opportunity to incorporate best practice on human settlements and sustainable urban development into Africa’s urban trajectory.

The Habitat III discussions can help provide best practices with regard to urban management and planning for a more inclusive economy and sustainable human settlements in South Africa, the continent and the developing world, David Makhura, the premier of Gauteng province, said during the opening ceremony of the informal settlements meeting in April. “There is no doubt that we certainly need a new urban vision in line with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals adopted in 2015,” he said.

Apartheid’s spatial legacy

South Africa’s prioritization of informal settlements in the Habitat III arena is apt. For the African National Congress, the ruling party that came to power in 1994 after the fall of apartheid, informal settlements indeed have been a continuous problem, one compounded by the rapid influx of people to urban areas in search of better opportunities.

At the same time, the government is grappling with ways to create more inclusive cities in order to move beyond the legacy of apartheid-era spatial engineering. That strategy had long resulted in poor black South Africans living on the periphery of major cities, far removed from economic opportunities.

Ironically, government’s previous strategy of building subsidized housing on cheap, readily available land on the outskirts of major cities — under what’s known as the Reconstruction and Development Programme — helped reinforce this spatial dislocation. Situated far from urban opportunities, poor inhabitants of these settlements have to commute long distances to work, school and city-based opportunities.

[See: Habitat III must institutionalize participatory urban development]

The government had lofty hopes of eliminating slums by 2014 as part of its commitment to the Millennium Development Goals, the global anti-poverty framework that ended last year after 15 years. But officials worried that it may remain an issue that “we will not be able to fulfil in our lifetime,” said Sisulu, speaking at the opening of the Habitat III meeting in April, which took place in Pretoria.

With a country characterized by gross inequality and an unemployment rate of almost 27 percent, poverty remains a persistent issue for South Africa. Shacks built of metal, wood and other salvaged materials remain a common sight on the peripheries of South African cities. Life in these informal settlements continues to be a reality for poor, landless South Africans, along with the threat of forced evictions, which frequently involve violence.

But some progress is being made. Between 2002 and 2014, the percentage of South Africa’s urban population living in informal settlements dropped from 17 percent to 11 percent, according to Statistics South Africa. During that time, however, the percentage of households living in informal dwellings dipped only slightly. This was due to an increase in the numbers of “backyard dwellers” — those who have built shacks in the backyards of other people’s homes.

[See: In informal settlements of Nairobi, women look to Habitat III on inclusive planning]

The country’s housing backlog, meanwhile, stands at 2.1 million. That’s despite the government having delivered a reported 4.3 million housing opportunities — including houses, serviced sites and “social housing” units — since 1994. The gap is a simple one: Cities in South Africa and beyond simply cannot keep up with the demand for housing — at least, not using traditional methods.

Prioritizing in situ

The Pretoria meeting in April was the last of nearly a dozen thematic and regional meetings that have taken place in the past year in the run-up to Habitat III. As with those other events, the meeting resulted in a formal document called the Pretoria Declaration.

Among other things, the declaration acknowledges the “prioritization of in situ upgrading to respond to the scale of urban poverty” — language welcomed by critics of evicting and relocating informal settlement dwellers. The recently released first draft of the New Urban Agenda likewise calls for the adoption of “policies that support incremental housing and slum/informal settlements upgrading programs.”

In situ upgrading involves supplying infrastructure and services — such as water, electricity and sanitation — to informal settlements where they occur without moving residents elsewhere.

The notion of slum “eradication” or “elimination” is dangerous because it signals evictions, says Marie Huchzermeyer, director of the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand, and author of the book “Cities with Slums”.

“I’ve yet to be shown any relocation of an informal settlement to formal housing that has meant a better location,” said Huchzermeyer. “It’s always a relocation to a worse location and that’s why there is such resistance to being relocated.”

[See: Turning Kibera’s mud huts into apartment towers]

Since not everyone living in informal settlements qualifies for government housing, there are people who “fall through the cracks” when informal settlements are relocated, says Huchzermeyer. They typically go on to form new informal settlements elsewhere.

To assist municipalities with upgrades, South Africa has an Upgrading Informal Settlements Programme and associated grant money. But some communities have had to fight long and hard to get upgrades, biding their time in squalid conditions. Some have sought help from the courts.

In early April, just a few days before the Pretoria meeting, the Johannesburg High Court made a landmark ruling that the City of Johannesburg must apply for funding to upgrade Slovo Park. This is an informal settlement in the south of Johannesburg with about 4,000 households and no electricity, where residents had been campaigning for over 20 years to get upgrades. “Ultimately, that judgment is going to change the way things are done,” said Huchzermeyer.

While in situ upgrading is prioritized in the Pretoria Declaration, it cannot be a blanket solution in the South African context, maintains Sisulu, the housing minister. After all, upgrading informal settlements that are far removed from cities, and are essentially “dumping sites”, would just replicate apartheid-style segregation, she said.

“There are places where in situ might be possible, and that is where we encourage in situ,” she said. “But there are places where in situ just does not apply in the South African context.”

Current government thinking focuses on securing land with access to city facilities, providing service sites and then allowing for in situ upgrades, Sisulu said.

[See: Finding a truly common vision for African cities]

But that hasn’t been happening fast enough to meet the demand.

In a bid to improve housing provision, the government is touting the role of private-public partnerships and the development of over 100 housing “mega projects” across the country in the next three years. Although the full details are yet to be released, the idea is that developments such as Savanna City — a mixed-use development under construction about 35 km from Johannesburg — can offer affordable housing that can absorb people living in nearby informal settlements.

But analysts such as Ivan Turok, executive director in the Economic Performance and Development Unit at South Africa’s Human Sciences Research Council, have offered warnings about this strategy. If developed on the urban periphery, where land is cheaper and accessible, these megaprojects could “remain as dormitories that are isolated from economic opportunities for decades,” he said, “while people lucky enough to have jobs will have to commute even further than they do today.”

Hopes for Habitat III

The outcomes of Habitat III will set the global urban agenda for the next 20 years. But since the New Urban Agenda as an agreement is not a binding treaty, it will be up to governments to make sure that it translates to policy and action on the ground.

As this story went to press, South Africa has not released an official statement on the first draft of the New Urban Agenda. The government is in the process of consulting with key stakeholders and other government departments before doing so, said Monika Glinzler, director for international relations in the Department of Human Settlements. “We’re going to be quite methodical about going through the text and checking what are the red-line issues, what’s in that needs to stay in, what’s not in that needs to get in,” she said.

Civil society groups are pinning their hopes on the language around participatory planning in the Pretoria Declaration that made its way into New Urban Agenda’s first draft. Inclusiveness and participatory processes are important, says Rose Molokoane, coordinator of Shack/Slum Dwellers International. “If they are not being taken seriously, then the issue of informal settlements won’t be resolved at all,” she said.

[Achieving inclusiveness: The challenge and potential of informal settlements]

Molokoane is urging South Africa’s government to plan for strengthened linkages between urban and rural areas. If local governments don’t plan for expanding populations due to people coming to cities, the result is squatting, she warns.

When it comes to the effectiveness of the final version of the New Urban Agenda, Molokoane is circumspect. “It’s good to talk, but it’s difficult to do,” she said. The agenda “will be a document that is guiding the member states on what to do. But when they go back to their respective countries, they will come up with the policies that suit them.”

Huchzermeyer notes that with powerful U. N. member states such as the United States pushing a strong neo-liberal agenda, it’s important that countries such as South Africa advocate for a progressive agenda in the Habitat III negotiations.

The African Union’s ‘Agenda 2063’ plays a key role here, she says. This vision document, agreed to in 2013, calls for “a prosperous Africa based on inclusive growth and sustainable development”. She said, “It’s very important that the African continent articulates its issues well, brings them forward, and gets the urban agenda refined, to an extent that it speaks to the realities here.”

On the continent, South Africa plays a pivotal role in defining the African urban agenda through, for instance, chairing the African Ministerial Conference on Housing and Urban Development. This is an intergovernmental conference focused on the challenge of urbanization that takes place every several years.

None of the early work on the New Urban Agenda is “foreign or strange” to planners in South Africa, said Christine Platt, the chair of Sisulu’s advisory panel and a Citiscope board member.

In the negotiations toward Habitat III, the South African government is working toward a consolidated African group position, said Glinzler. That position will need to reflect the priorities of the Abuja Declaration, a document that came out of a Habitat III regional meeting in February that identifies ways to harness the potential of urbanization.

[See: African governments offer common vision on urbanization]

On to implementation

The New Urban Agenda is not binding. But South Africa’s government says it will incorporate the language into domestic policy.

In the past, South Africa has taken most Habitat resolutions very seriously, according to Sisulu. For instance, the agreement that came out of the previous Habitat conference — Habitat II, held in 1996 in Istanbul — formed the basis of the government’s housing code. “We will await the outcome of Habitat III and make sure that our white paper [on housing] takes that into account, and it is central to that,” she said.

[See: How can Africa deliver on its ambitious vision for Habitat III?]

Indeed, the government looks to be taking Habit III seriously. And it needs to. In 2016, South Africa remains one of the most unequal societies in the world, burdened by a hefty housing backlog and characterized by growing antipathy toward government, which frequently manifests in violent protests around the country.

Civil society and other observers are paying close attention to what government agrees to in Quito. “We won’t relax,” says SDI’s Molokoane. “We will always go back to government and remind them of their commitment.”


Brendon Bosworth is the editor at

Citiscope is a nonprofit news outlet that covers innovations in cities around the world. More at citiscope. org.

Photo: Joe Slovo Park in Cape Town, South Africa. via Vgrigas.

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