Cities With Slums

Author(s) Marie Huchzermeyer
Publisher UCT Press
Year 2011

Although one of the last continents to urbanise, Africa is now experiencing rapid urbanisation, the scale of which exceeds its cities’ capacity to absorb migrants and is exacerbated by high rates of natural growth.[i]  Much of this urbanisation is taking the form of informal settlements, often on the periphery[ii] of large towns and cities or around traditional villages on the fringes of urban areas. These settlements are often an extension of the colonial development pattern that separates the elite from the majority.[iii] While the former live in neat, serviced areas, the majority of the population live without, or at most very rudimentary services.[iv] Such areas fall within the definition of a slum as an area with inadequate access to safe water, sanitation and related infrastructure, poor quality housing, and lacking security of tenure.[v]

Policies and actions to manage informal settlements or slums vary from eradication through to the removal of residents (and possible relocation) to in situ upgrading of settlements that are not located in hazardous areas.  Along with the recognition of the prevalence of ‘slums’ as a pervasive feature of African cities is a drive for globally competitive cities and ‘Cities without Slums’, promoted by the Cities Alliance through the mechanism of city development strategies[vi] based on a neoliberal development model.

In her book. ‘Cities with ‘Slums’: from informal settlement eradication to a right to the city in Africa’, Marie Huchzermeyer exposes the contradictions and conflicts arising from opposing ideologies pertaining to the ‘world class city’ and inhabitants’ right to the city . The book juxtaposes the desire for orderly, competitive cities that results in the removal of slums with the rights of informal settlement residents to basic services, security of tenure, a voice in decision-making and creating the city. In addition to revealing slum clearance (with scant attention to residents’ needs and livelihoods) as the prevailing approach to informal settlements in Africa, Huchzermeyer seeks to “inspire a wider understanding of, sympathy for and solidarity with struggles against informal settlement eradication” (p. 15).

The Introduction outlines the issues and chapters discussed in the book, which are collected into three parts: the first being the urban context, the second case studies of slum eradication, and the third the South African experience. Included in the latter part is the concluding chapter on the right to the city. As part of a brief discussion on the origin of the concept of ‘slums’ as applied in modern contexts, Professor Huchzermeyer raises a core concern of the book, “if ‘cities with slums’ are to be turned into ‘cities without slums’, what is to become of Africa’s ‘slum cities’ – are they wished away altogether?”(p. 7).  This Introduction then sketches the tension between the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) as interpreted by African governments and the grassroots organisations fighting for the right to the city and in situ upgrading rather than slum eradication.

Chapter One contains a critique of the urban competitiveness agenda with its focus on attracting foreign capital expressed in a modernistic vision of an orderly city. This vision has no place for informal settlements, at least not those that are visible from the new, modern formal parts of the city that are monuments to growth and global capital. Consequently, ‘slums’ must be removed out of sight. The MDG Seven, Target 11, is the rationale for slum clearance, but implemented with a focus on the symptoms rather than a rights-based focus on the causes of poverty and informality (p. 38). This critique of urban competitiveness continues into Chapter Two with an analysis of the policy implications such as discouraging the poor from living in the city by making it unattractive to them by denying basic services and legitimacy (p. 53).

Informal settlements and the discourse on urban informality are the subject of Chapter Three. Besides discussing the definitions of informality, Huchzermeyer examines reactions to the informal: from statistics such as the over-inflated numbers of residents in, for example, Kibera, Nairobi, to the vilification of informal activities and settlements. The chapter concludes with a call to make urban informal ‘slums’ habitable.

Chapters Four to Six in Part Two document case studies that endorse Huchzermeyer’s thesis that governments prefer to eradicate rather than upgrade informal settlements as a result of commitments to global competitiveness and the MDGs. These case studies include Abuja, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Nairobi, and Cape Town. These examples demonstrate governments’ focus on creating world class cities, the disdain for informal settlements and a lack of concern for the well-being and livelihoods of the residents of such areas.

These arguments are carried forward into Part 3 which focuses largely on the South African policy and legal context and attempts to reverse the eradication drive to a more humane in situ upgrading approach. Chapter Seven examines the development of policy and its application in South Africa and calls for a rights-based approach, taking the City of Johannesburg’s regularisation policy further. The following two chapters trace the legal battles of two settlements for their continued existence. Woven within this part is a history of the part played by non-governmental organisations in the struggle for informal settlements’ right of existence.

The final chapter is a call for a ‘right to the city’ based on Lefebvre’s definitions[vii] that include the right to shape, participate and use or occupy the city, for all its inhabitants, poor and affluent alike. Huchzermeyer, while acknowledging the need for urgent attention to the needs of slum residents, argues that the MDG target based approach can “displace real and diverse needs, as urgency leads to standardised delivery” (p246). Instead a broad-based campaign that reaches across class and other social barriers is required to deal with the inequalities and contradictions of capitalism and neoliberalism, and recognise the role of informal settlements and slums and their right to the city.

The book presents a passionate plea on behalf of slum dwellers and informal settlement residents for the rights expressed in the founding provision of the South African Constitution, namely “human dignity, the achievement of equality and the advancement of human rights and freedoms”.[viii] It contains a virulent attack on the two-faced policy implemented by the South African government in the face of the human rights entrenched in the Constitution and for example the ‘Breaking New Ground’ (BNG)[ix] policy. On the one hand there are the provisions for the rights for access to adequate housing[x] and water and a strong drive to meet basic needs[xi] of the community to which lip service is paid, according to Huchzermeyer, while on the other hand are the commitments to the MDGs and the need to be globally competitive, attract investment and tourists that are receiving priority.

It is this exposé of the dichotomy between policy and practice along with the contempt with which informal settlement residents are treated, that for me is the critical message of this book. I believe that the author has indeed achieved her aim to engender greater sympathy for the plight and the struggles of informal settlement communities for the right to their existence.

Professor Verna Nel is based at the University of the Free State’s Urban and Regional Planning department.


[i] Kessides, C. 2006.   The urban transition in Sub-Saharan Africa: Implications for economic growth and poverty reduction. The Cities Alliance. 2006; Potts, D.  2012. Whatever happened to Africa’s rapid urbanisation? Counterpoints. Africa Research Institute.

[ii] Davies, M. 2006. Planet of the Slums. Verso. London.

[iii] Njoh, A. J. 2002. Development implications of colonial land and humans settlements schemes in Cameroon. Habitat International vol 26: 399–415

[iv] According to the UN report ‘the Challenge of Slums” about 71% of the Sub-Saharan African population live in ‘slums’. (United Nations Human Settlements Programme. 2003. The Challenge of Slums: Global report on Human Settlements. Nairobi.

[v] Ibid page 14.

[vi] Cities Alliance. 2006. Guide to city Development Strategies. Washington DC.

[vii] See page 62

[viii] Republic of South Africa. The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, Act 108 of 1996, §1(a)

[ix] Department of Housing.  2004. “Breaking New Ground” a comprehensive plan for the development of

Sustainable human settlements. Available from (accessed 30/4/2014)

[x] Sections 26 and 27 of the Constitution of South Africa.

[xi] See for example the extract from the RDP” “the RDP will encourage and support the participation of people in making the key decisions about where the projects should be and how they should be managed.” (sec 1.4.3, p9).  South Africa. 1994. White Paper on Reconstruction and Development. Government Printers, Pretoria. See also the responsibility for local government to protect human rights and meet basic needs in the White paper on Local Government (p18). Ministry for Provincial Affairs and Constitutional Development. 1998. White paper on local government. Government Printers, Pretoria.


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