Small towns must lead the way

PHOTO: getty imagesApartheid’s spatial legacy in small towns can be changed more easily than in cities.
PHOTO: getty imagesApartheid’s spatial legacy in small towns can be changed more easily than in cities.

ALONG the tarmac arteries that connect South Africa’s major cities are the small towns. The tin roofs of informal settlements blend into layers of government housing: standard houses that are “copied and pasted” onto the edges. Then the suburbs start. Older houses with small, well-tended gardens fade into larger, wealthier properties as the town centre approaches. On the way out of town, the pattern repeats itself in reverse. Welcome to small-town South Africa.

Attention and activism have, rightly, focused on divisions within our major cities, but the smaller towns may be the most obvious visual indictment of a housing system that has failed dismally to redress apartheid’s spatial inequality.

From a practical perspective, small towns present an easier opportunity to build models of spatial integration — there is greater land availability, less complex infrastructure planning and fewer vested interests than large cities. If only politics was practical.

South Africa’s housing policy and, far more importantly, implementation, has embedded apartheid spatial exclusion in smaller towns like in large cities. Other important factors include conservative planning departments, risk-adverse officials, powerful ratepayers’ associations, corruption and inefficient and under-resourced municipalities. Together these factors point to a distinct lack of political and administrative will to make changes, allowing conservative, apartheid-style planning to continue.

In small towns an opportunity has been missed to break the back of apartheid-style planning. But it is not impossible to correct this. The following practical steps would be a start.

Speed up land audits. All unused land (municipal and private) needs to be audited and mapped. Well-located land near or in town centres needs to be earmarked for higher density housing. The audits need to be managed by provincial or national government so as to disrupt vested local interests. A specialised team (including civil society) could be formed to manage or oversee land audits. The information must be shared publicly.

Disrupt ratepayers’ power: The public good of inclusive housing needs to trump the power of ratepayers (which is significant in small towns) in process and law. If housing stock is innovative and well managed, it will not drastically reduce property values.

Accept higher densities: Centrally located housing stock will be higher density (flats). In smaller towns, empty centrally located buildings should be identified in the land audit and developed into social housing.

Use the housing waiting lists: Families offered housing opportunities must either accept this type of housing or move down the list. We cannot continue to build free-standing housing on the periphery. Drastic, disruptive measures are needed to break this pattern.

Bring in new housing models: Both the municipality and housing contractors perpetuate a pattern of construction on the periphery of small towns. This comfortable, conservative pattern, entrenched over the past 25 years, must be actively disrupted. Civil society and other tiers of government must challenge municipalities and contractors to build and manage housing differently. The private sector needs to play a role in improving the quality of housing and speeding up housing delivery.

Real change starts at the planning stages, drawing in participants through innovative design tools and giving a voice to marginalised communities who are often excluded from planning decisions. This also encourages the private sector to be involved and add value and capital to projects.

Housing developments should no longer be labelled as “low cost” and peripheral to existing spatial frameworks, an extension to the edge. Rather, they should be seen as part of a comprehensive spatial plan for the entire town.

Changing small-town planning is about disrupting entrenched structural power. This power is longstanding and embedded in the relationship between municipalities, wealthy ratepayers and private contractors who benefit from the present situation.

External intervention is necessary from civil society, community actors or other tiers of government. Above all, transparent and clear political will is needed. — GroundUp.

• Noah Schermbrucker is a project manager for People’s Environmental Planning ( He has six years experience working on housing, water and sanitation projects across southern Africa.

• Olwethu Jack is a designer and social facilitator with extensive experience in informal settlement upgra- ding. He is currently working for People’s Environmental Planning as a lead facilitator for the Informal Settlements Support Programme in the Bitou Municipa- lity.

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