ANALYSIS | Nipping the housing problem in the bud - More proactive, less reactive

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Vulnerable people with little to no access to adequate shelter, let alone decent housing, occupy land because of the unacceptable conditions they have endured for years in crowded and unsanitary informal settlements or backyard dwellings. (Vincent Lali)
Vulnerable people with little to no access to adequate shelter, let alone decent housing, occupy land because of the unacceptable conditions they have endured for years in crowded and unsanitary informal settlements or backyard dwellings. (Vincent Lali)

Urban land reform policies and programmes need to be revised to respond to the needs of the urban poor, to stop the spread of informal settlements, writes Hangwelani Hope Magidimisha-Chipungu.

The perpetual mushrooming and burgeoning of informal settlements across cities is extremely distressing to the planning fraternity of the democratic South Africa.

While, commendably, there has been much focus on construction of subsided housing to redress the spatial imbalances of the past, there have been precious few advances towards a more sustainable and permanent approach to curb the phenomenon of informal settlements and bury it together with the shameful history of apartheid.

27 years into democracy, a better life for all South Africans is still a dream for many people, especially for the disenfranchised urban poor who reside in informal settlements across the country.

Spatial policy reform is proving inadequate to alleviate the plight of the spatially and economically marginalised urban poor or slow down the ongoing human tragedy that emanates from the proliferation of informal settlements.

The urban poor is on the receiving end of most of the misfortunes that beset our cities and endanger their lives in their tireless attempts to cope with these urban spaces.

The reality of Quarry Road informal settlement 

The aspirations and symbolic moniker of cities like Durban is lost in the reality when confronted by places like Quarry Road informal settlement, near Checkers, Reservoir Hills, Durban. This area bears no resemblance to "Africa’s most caring and liveable city". The settlement has encroached onto the adjacent pedestrian sidewalk of the extremely busy Quarry Road. Residents use this road for everyday activities such as socialising and informal or small-scale retailing, while children use it as a playground. The settlement is also located along the floodplain of a stream that runs through it. All these factors put the community’s safety at risk, creating a recipe for disaster.  

I believe that the informal settlement did not abruptly emerge in its current state but gradually expanded over time. I’m also convinced that at least some municipal officials or law enforcement agents have travelled through this area at some stage and witnessed the settlement being developed without saying or doing anything about it.

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Such silent treatment solves no problems and only worsens them. This scenario is not unique to Quarry Road Informal Settlement but is replicated across all such settlements throughout the country.

It almost seems like the modus operandi is to wait until the situation gets out of hand and thereafter, the responsible authorities start to react. It is common knowledge that such reaction rather than a pro-active approach has failed to address the issue of informal settlements or the spatial injustices of the past and the calamities that befall the urban poor who dwell in them.

It is my submission that, if one is going to tackle the problem of spatial disparities in the form of informal settlements and the subsequent socio-economic imbalances, one must nip it in the bud.

In other words, target the causes rather than treating the symptoms without delay. The longer we wait for the informal settlement problem to grow, the costlier and more complicated it becomes to solve.

Eradicate informal settlements

There is a need for a dynamic shift in the approach to eradicate or curb the proliferation of informal settlements. This should emphasise a proactive rather than a reactive approach.

In the public domain, land reform programmes are struggling to meet their target, especially in relation to urban land where informal settlements are a common sight and urgent action is needed. Land is still largely and disproportionally owned by the minority. This leaves much of the African population with little land and resources, which is one factor at the root of the problem.

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According to the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform’s (DRDLR) 2017 Land Audit, individual land ownership by race was estimated at 72% white, 4% African, 15% Coloured, 5% Indian, 3% Others and 1% Co-Owned. If this is the case, this imbalance points to one of the root causes of the problem of informal settlements. It is not by mistake that the majority of Africans who disproportionately own less land than any other race in the country are most likely to live in informal settlements.

Statistics show that the more land one owns, the less likely one is to stay in an informal settlement.

Revise urban land reform policies

Urban land reform policies and programmes need to be revised to respond to the needs of the urban poor, mainly black Africans. It cannot be stressed enough that the sustainability of these reforms and programmes does not rest exclusively in the mere provision of a piece of land or a housing unit but also requires consideration of the availability and strategic location of the land.

If the available land is not strategically located, we are bound to continue getting it wrong, and a century from now, the problem will remain and, indeed, will be worse and more complex than it is today.

The housing problem as manifested by informal settlements and the shortfalls of the land reform policy and programmes calls into question the role of development control and its effectiveness. It also shines a spotlight on the role of planners and responsible law enforcement agents in curbing the issues at hand.

Extensive research has been conducted and published that provides evidence on the nature, source, and remediation of the problem of informal settlements. These findings should inform policymakers and other stakeholders in tackling this serious issue.

- Professor Hangwelani Hope Magidimisha-Chipungu is SARChi Chair for Inclusive Cities at University of KwaZulu-Natal.

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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