Business Day: Shack upgrades gain some foundation

Stuart Wilson, Business Day

EARLIER this month, a team of lawyers and community activists addressed hundreds of people at the Slovo Park informal settlement south of Johannesburg. The meeting was called to discuss the effect of a recent high court decision directing the City of Johannesburg to improve the area under the provisions of the Upgrading of Informal Settlements Policy.

The policy is part of South African law, found in the National Housing Code of 2009. But municipalities have consistently refused to apply it.

At least 5-million people live in 2,600 informal settlements across SA. Yet, since the policy was promulgated, there have been few upgrading projects.

What municipalities often pass off as upgrading is really the construction of RDP housing on the site of an informal settlement. Because an RDP house takes up more space than a shack, this always yields fewer housing units.

“Qualifying” beneficiaries are awarded the housing. “Nonqualifiers”, often the majority, are excluded from the project.

Nonqualifiers include single men without dependants, people with a household income of more than R3,500 per month, and anyone else to whom the housing supply does not reach — even those who meet the official subsidy criteria.

These people often end up living in a new informal settlement on the doorstep of the new housing development and others join them. Social exclusion is hardwired into the process.

LOCAL officials pick and choose who gets housing. The obvious consequence is corruption. There is a healthy case load of people who seem to have been cheated out of houses by patronage politics — local elites (councillors, bureaucrats and other officials) use RDP houses to do each other favours, while crowding out people in real need in the process.

The Upgrading of Informal Settlements Policy is supposed to stop that, because it provides for people in informal settlements to be given rights, services and, ultimately, housing on the land they occupy.

Virtually, the only criterion is residence in an area earmarked for upgrading; the policy does away with the distinction between “qualifiers” and “nonqualifiers”.

Under the policy, local authorities have to devise and implement housing developments in consultation with affected communities. They must communicate constantly with all the residents of the settlement, and strike difficult compromises — on the nature of land rights to be allocated, rearrangement of shacks to conform with a township plan, temporary relocations to allow for the installation of services, the services to be provided, and the dimensions of the structures to be built.

Local authorities have to build consensus on all these issues. This requires a fine degree of sensitivity and control from local authorities, and the ability and willingness to resolve disagreements. It leaves little room for patronage and corruption, because any upgrading project is, of necessity, implemented in the full view of all of the intended beneficiaries.

THESE features of the Upgrading of Informal Settlements Policy reveal why it was so badly needed and why local authorities have been so reluctant to implement it.

Local authorities are notoriously bad at interfacing with local communities. Consultation exercises tend to be cosmetic.

The policies and programmes on which consultation takes place — integrated development plans, budgets, growth and development strategies — are pitched at such a high level of abstraction that communities find it difficult to work out what the documents actually mean for them, whether to approve the plans or what, if anything, to change.

When local authorities do engage on issues of real concern to local people — who will benefit from housing, get public works jobs, get access to water and electricity and when this will happen — it is often through ward committees that tend to impose party-political discipline rather than formulate finely balanced compromises.

Inevitably, ward committees and local authorities distribute fewer benefits than there are people in need. With so much need chasing so few resources, resources dissipate through patronage networks, or in return for a bribe, or through failure to target accurately those most in need.

This creates winners and losers, and when the losers protest or seek to expose corruption, they are met with violence: from the police; from municipalities illegally evicting political dissidents (as regularly happens in Durban, where members of informal settlement movement Abahlali baseMjondolo are targeted for punitive eviction repeatedly); and in political assassination.

The implementation of the Upgrading of Informal Settlements Policy could help disrupt these patterns.

The people of Slovo Park still have a long way to go on their road to upgrading. The City of Joburg may challenge the judgment against it.

The Gauteng MEC for housing must evaluate, approve and fund any plan that the community and the city devise. The complex business of installing services, transferring land rights, and building houses must then begin.

However, in placing the city and the Slovo Park community on the path to an upgrade under the policy, the high court not only set the terms on which thousands of people will receive real material benefits; it also created an opportunity for the practice of local democracy to be renewed.

If, as the high court found, the policy must be applied to informal settlements wherever practically possible, it may be used more frequently.

If that happens, the practices of consensus-seeking, community-based partnership, and the transparent distribution of benefits that the Upgrading of Informal Settlements Policy requires may come to reshape the terms on which local development takes place. This will begin to solve many of the problems that have plagued local democracy in SA.