Under African Skies, Day 2: Informal Settlements

by Ares Kalandides

It is not only in the “global South” that people tend to move to and gather around large cities. It is rather a phenomenon that can be found in all places where rural and small-town areas offer few or no opportunities to build a decent life. “People have very basic needs. They don’t chose informality. They’d all rather live in formal settlements, with bathrooms, water and electricity supply, where they know they will not be evicted the next day”, says Marie Huchzermeyer, professor at the School of Architecture and Planning at the University of Witwatersrand and author of several books. “They live in a constant field of tension”. Informal settlements in Johannesburg do not only appear in the periphery of the city. Rather, they are everywhere where there is a pocket of free space. People move in and build their shacks. And then they stay. Sometimes, as in the case of Springvalley, in the municipality of Emalahleni, the informal settlement is surrounded by an upmarket one, while a wall separates one from the other. Everyday, several domestic workers cross that border to work in the wealthier area. The fortunes of the two communities are interlinked, yet could not be more different.

As soon as an area becomes upmarket, the pressure to remove the neighbouring informal settlement grows. There is fear of crime, but mostly fear that land will lose its value. The South African government, in line with the UN directive, had promised a “land without informal settlements by 2014”. I can only think of are two ways to deal with this: you can bring the bulldozer to wipe out the settlement or you can eliminate the conditions that created it, i.e. poverty. There are several cases where settlements were demolished, although even the Constitutional Court has decided that this is illegal, since the right to decent housing is anchored in the Constitution. “There is huge progress in official policy”, says Zunaid Khan, a town planner at the city’s planning department. “Some years ago, the line was to eradicate informal settlements, today we’re talking about upgrading them”. Zunaid explains that there are six different types of informal settlements, including those who can not be upgraded (i.e. under power lines), those that experience an “in-situ upgrade”, some regularized, others linked to projects etc.

Relocation is a rather controversial approach. Even though many people’s dream is to be given a free RDP (Reconstruction and Development Programme) house, they also defend their settlements when they’re under attack. Moving people out of the settlement and into the new housing projects usually just means that other people will come take their place. If it gets known that there is relocation from this settlement towards formal housing, then others will move in, hoping for the same fate. “It is like a revolving door”, says Katja Naumann, Ward Councillor. Relocation usually means moving several kilometres outside the city, where the land is cheaper. This means several hours of commuting every day for those who work in the households in the inner city. “I have not yet seen relocation to a better location” says Huchzermeyer. And yet, the right to non-commodified housing was one of the proclamations of the groups supporting the ANC (African National Congress) prior to 1994 and the end of the Apartheid.

A formalization process and in-situ upgrading usually goes through several stages, explains Zunaid from the planning authority. First there is “an exercise in enumeration, i.e. we try to simply count, how many shacks are in the settlements, who lives there, how long they’ve been living there etc., followed by an exercise in mapping to record our findings.” Re-blocking is usually the next step, where we simply try to improve the layout of the settlement. And finally there is settlement management, which deals with practical issues such as the amenities, keeping technical standards, service supply, fire regulations etc. “The city outsources settlement management, sometimes to eviction companies”, explains Huchzermeyer. Their interest can sometimes be quite different from the one of the communities and the tenders, through which they get the job, are not so transparent. Katja Naumann, the ward councillor, explains that you need to rely on local initiatives is because of the total inefficiency of the state. “This is considered as the richest city in the country, but yet it’s practically broke, in particular in its inability to provide basic services to people”.

The role of NGOs in assisting local, community-based development in this country cannot be exaggerated. Mike Makwela from Planact has been working on community participation for 27 years, now. When Planact enters a partnership with the authorities to work with a community, they agree to contain the settlement, i.e. to prevent it from expanding. “What happens, though” explains again Huchzermeyer “is that they densify. Smaller shacks are built in the back of the existing ones or on top of one another. More people live in less space”. Mike sees the work of Planact in three levels: research to support their work; advocacy for the poor communities at the government level; and capacity building with community leaders. Planact’s advocacy work includes bringing visibility to these communities, making sure that new frameworks provide for the poor instead of by-passing them. It is with this aim that they are broadcasting a series of radio shows at the moment to talk about the Springvalley informal settlement, including the oral history of its people, the upgrading process it’s undergoing and the way that its immediate wealthier neighbours see it. They mostly work in installing participatory multi-tier governance in townships and informal settlements: a coordination committee of 30 people including NGOs, officials, police etc. with several thematic sub-committees, block committees of 10 people per block and then finally street committees. The community agrees upon on a “constitution” and signs a declaration of commitment to work together. Mike believes that these committees should rather remain informal. “As soon as they formalize and become, let’s say a trust, there is a risk of them becoming an exclusive club. Then you get only 7 people who work on maintaining their power. On the other hand I understand that they need some kind of formality, so they can apply for grants etc.”.

“Why are we concerned with participation in a democratic state?” asks Mike Makwela. “Because democracy is strong only if participation is. We need a vibrant civil society.”


Huchzermeyer, M. (2004), Cities with ‘slums’. From informal settlement eradication to a right to the city in Africa, UCT Press.

Planact (2009), Making towns and cities work for people. Planact in South Africa: 1985-2005, in-house publishing.

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