Guest Column

Hunger for urban land and township development central to expropriation debate

2018-03-23 08:41
A view of rain clouds over Table Mountain from Gugulethu in Cape Town. (Tammy Petersen, News24)

A view of rain clouds over Table Mountain from Gugulethu in Cape Town. (Tammy Petersen, News24)

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Thulani Mpangane and Ebrahim Fakir

The township economy, albeit largely informal, is a multi-billion rand industry which provides employment and sustains the livelihoods of many South Africans. The revitalisation of the township economy is impossible without due consideration of land (re)distribution and usage patterns.

The election of Cyril Ramaphosa as president of the ANC and subsequently as president of the Republic, has heralded a new mood of optimism amongst many South Africans. 

Equally, Ramaphosa will have his detractors, both within the ANC and amongst opposition parties, as well as in society generally. However, the passing of a resolution on land expropriation without compensation, motivated by the EFF and then adopted as resolution at the ANC’s 54th conference and subsequently passed through Parliament, has renewed some hope in his leadership amongst "the landless". 

The markets have also not yet adversely reacted to the intention for land expropriation without compensation, notwithstanding fears that this may potentially impact on "property rights" generally.     

Though much attention is still focused on the merits and demerits of such a proposal, including whether a constitutional amendment of section 25 of the Constitution is strictly necessary, very little attention has been focused on the question of urban land hunger – for housing, public service provision, recreation, culture and most importantly, the stimulation of the township as a site for economic development.  

Current land distribution patterns in the townships suggest that land is used primarily for housing. In the 24 years since democratisation, there have been intermittently better usage of land for public services in the form of clinics, hospitals, schools, low cost and social housing, as well as limited recreational and cultural facilities. But by and large, much unused land has been used for the development of retail shopping centres, and to a very limited extent manufacturing or other industrial hubs.

Land development for economic and industrial purposes is largely a feature of townships in Gauteng and perhaps KwaZulu-Natal, and to a limited extent the Western and Eastern Cape. In other parts of the country land usage in townships for commercial, manufacturing and industrial purposes is almost negligible – except for limited spaces designated as manufacturing hubs by the apartheid government in some former Bantustan areas as part of apartheid special economic zones. 

Due to the persistence of apartheid division, marginalisation and spatial planning patterns, township dwellings are characterised by being small and cramped, housing a large number of people. As income generating assets, many use any available spare space within their homes to sub-let. Others use space in backyards to erect fixed or makeshift structures, to let out primarily for accommodation purposes but increasingly also for micro business purposes. This leads to over-crowding and congestion. 

Several homeowners operate home-based enterprises on their already limited residential spaces. This has a negative effect on the current land usage patterns in the township. 

Essentially, township enterprises are home-based, and oriented to servicing a local market. Consequently, many township enterprises have an impaired ability and insufficient capacity to serve larger markets that extend beyond their immediate neighbourhoods. In most cases, township entrepreneurs, especially manufacturers, service providers and small retailers are forced to find geographical refuge for their businesses within their own homes due to the fact that it is the only piece of land they can easily access, leading to a decrease in the value of their homes and their overall quality of life. 

This has a more fundamental impact, however, on their lack of privacy and their social and economic mobility. Home-based entrepreneurs also face the challenge of balancing business and family relationships because they have to fulfil family duties while conducting their businesses, since both are located within the same space. 

In essence, lack of access to land has forced township entrepreneurs to becoming home-based entrepreneurs, hindering the growth and development of their businesses. They face further obstacles due to their spatial (dis)location from established nodes of trade, commerce, industry and economic activity, and the state of poor infrastructure means that that rail, road and other transport connectivity is poor. 

Bad traffic congestion, traffic and pedestrian safety and overall mobility management impede not only their ability to develop effective distribution and supply chains, but also their development as logistics hubs. These all inhibit the further growth and development of township businesses and the township economy as a whole. Any future land expropriation agenda should consider these dynamics in its land redistribution phase. 

Located largely in the unregulated, informal economy, township entrepreneurs without property titles are de facto coerced into deploying their homes for productive purposes, or alternatively have to rent business space from local owners with property or land titles.

In most cases, township entrepreneurs rent both a place to stay, as well as a place to conduct business, from the same landlord. In such cases, the growth and development of business enterprises can be advanced or retarded by the relationship that the entrepreneur tenant has with the property owner. 

Township landlords consequently have the power to determine the operating times of the business, dictate resource usage levels and limits such as for water, electricity, refuse and other utilities as well as the amount of noise, thoroughfare and traffic they are prepared to permit. Moreover, township entrepreneurs who rent space are under constant threat of eviction and live subject to the whim of the landlord. 

It is also not uncommon for unscrupulous and extortionate landlords who suspect or perceive a booming business on their premises, to increase rents and other charges from business owners, driving up operating costs and making local businesses unviable in the long run. 

It is common cause that land expropriation without compensation, and subsequent land redistribution processes will need to be handled with fragility and sensitivity and part of this sensitivity requires recognition that large tracts of urban land in townships are state-owned. While it is a popular perception that a large amount of land is concentrated in the hands of the white minority, it is equally important that it be objectively acknowledged that in the township context, a notable amount of land is owned by the government which has remained beyond the reach and access of ordinary people. 

Additionally, there are some open spaces and unused sports fields and built infrastructure that remain idly unproductive. This vacant and unused land that is owned by government should be put to productive use and allocated and reserved for manufacturing hubs owned by township entrepreneurs. 

Several large tracts of land in townships have been turned over to private developers. Primarily, these have led to the development of retail malls and shopping centres. Though these are necessary, continued expropriation leading to evictions of citizens from homes, especially in informal settlements, should no longer come at the expense of citizens and the needs of the township economy as a whole. 

Perhaps it is worth considering whether retail and mall development has reached a saturation point in some townships, and that land now be allocated for commercial, manufacturing and industrial purposes. 

Without a shift in thinking on land use in the township, the township economy is likely to remain retarded. 

- Thulani Mpangane is a National Research Foundation research Intern at the Auwal Socio-Economic Research Institute (ASRI) Township Economy Programme, and Ebrahim Fakir is Director of Programmes at ASRI and part time lecturer at the Wits School of Governance. He also serves on the board of directors of Afesis-Corplan. 

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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