Notes from the South (Part 2): Housing under siege

diepslootby Ares Kalandides[1]

(This is the second part on The (In)formal City project in Johannesburg. For part 1 see here)

The South African constitution is very straightforward about the right to housing to all the state’s citizens. Article 26 of the Bill of Rights declares:

1. Everyone has the right to have access to adequate housing.

2. The state must take reasonable legislative and other measures, within its available resources, to achieve the progressive realisation of this right.

3. No one may be evicted from their home, or have their home demolished, without an order of court made after considering all the relevant circumstances. No legislation may permit arbitrary evictions.

There are several cases where communities in the Gauteng province were displaced, only to have the Constitutional Court rule a) that the authorities had acted illegally and b) that they needed to provide alternative shelters immediately. The bottom line is that that cities around the country in general and the city of Johannesburg in particular are under constant pressure to provide adequate housing.

Although the state has indeed been providing housing (approx. 2.3 million dwellings since 1994) the backlog is not diminishing. It is estimated that 2.6 million dwellings are needed today, the same number as two decades ago. People leaving the countryside to find a job in big cities, change in households that are becoming smaller and a large influx of immigrants from other African countries account for a constant increase in demand. Ever since the end of the Apartheid regime in 1994, the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) aims to tackle this issue by providing free standard individual housing for ownership to the population. This is meant to both provide a shelter and create an asset for the owner who is allowed to sale after a period of 8 years. Unfortunately, because of the poor construction some houses are not even worth their initial construction costs (between 80,000 and 90,000 Rand in average), becoming a liability for the owner who sometimes cannot even pay for basic maintenance.

RDP Housing

RDP Housing

The chronic lack of housing is behind two quite different but related phenomena: informal settlements and squatted inner-city buildings.  The National Upgrading Support Programme defines informal settlements legally: “An informal settlement exists where housing has been created in an urban or peri-urban location without official approval”. It is estimated that there are 2,700 informal settlements in South Africa today, housing 1.2 million households. In Johannesburg alone there are 180 informal settlements though these represent a small percentage of people living in “inadequate conditions”.

Informal settlements may appear on public or private land, which may or may not be suitable for human settlement (e.g. former waste dumps, below the flood line), usually too far from any infrastructure (water, sewage, transport), some of them transitional and some permanent. “No two informal settlements are really alike”, said Sylvana Jahre, one of the the participants of The (In)formal City project after spending a day in Diepsloot and Ruimsig. “They are so profoundly different, that using the same name to describe them makes little sense”.

A settlement inside an empty former factory. Inhabitants were moved there after their shacks in Marlboro South were demolished

A settlement inside an empty former factory. Inhabitants were moved there after their shacks in Marlboro South were demolished

The national upgrading programme has two different strategies to deal with the issue. Upgrading (in situ), i.e. trying to supply a minimum of safe living conditions and amenities without moving the people and relocation where the ground is not considered adequate for living or somebody claims the land. What we have realized during this trip is that in most cases what people want is security of tenure above all: knowing that they will not be evicted from their homes. Anne Graupner from 2610 South Architects who is co-hosting the programme in Johannesburg insists that we should not look at people in these settlement as homogeneous: there are completely different people with different dreams and different agendas.

A settlement on the roof od an inner citybuilding

A settlement on the roof od an inner citybuilding

The situation in Johannesburg is particularly dramatic: 37% of all inhabitants live in inadequate housing. This includes informal settlements, bad buildings in the inner city (about 1/3) and backyard dwellings[2] in formal townships (about 2/3). In the inner city you cannot avoid noticing the situation at once: many abandoned buildings have been taken over by people without homes, either as simple collective squats or – in the worst case – as hijacked buildings were squatters live in squalor and pay rent (for no amenities) to a slumlord. The majority may be immigrants from other African countries, but from what we have understood, the situation is not limited to them.

A highjacked building in the inner city of Johannesburg

A hijacked building in the inner city of Johannesburg

Architects like Anne Graupner work together with Universities, NGOs, governmental departments and community leaders trying to find answers and suggest solutions.  There are numerous economic, cultural and institutional barriers that make fast results impossible. The promise of an individual private home for every South African has long reached its limitations.


[1] I am indebted to Tshanda Mbuyi, Guy Trangos and Nicolette Pingo who provided me with most of the relevant information here

[2] The latter are illegal structures in the backyard (or sometimes roofs) of existing houses.

About Ares

Ares Kalandides holds a PhD in Urban and Regional Studies from the National Technical University of Athens. He is the founder and CEO of Inpolis, an international consultancy based in Berlin, Germany and has implement several projects around the world. Ares teaches Urban Economics at the Technical University in Berlin and Metropolitan Studies at NYU Berlin.
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