Cape Times: Housing Policy – Let’s talk about an alternative to what there is

housing policy
Let’s talk about an alternative to what there is

September 14, 2010 Edition 1

Paul Hendler

Government’s stated intention is to create sustainable human settlements for all. In reality most South Africans live in remote informal settlements and what are still largely underserviced urban dormitories. Why have long-standing apartheid spatial patterns persisted, 16 years after the advent of democracy? What could prompt real change towards the development of sustainable settlements?

The official policy, Breaking New Ground (BNG), is not simply to house the people but more importantly to create an enabling environment for “sustainable and integrated human settlements”.

The Western Cape Sustainable Human Settlements Strategy (also known as Isidima) similarly purports to advance the creation of settlements that are economically and ecologically sustainable and which represent a state and space of identity within which all residents in the Western Cape can live meaningful lives.

Both BNG and Isidima aim to reverse the effect of apartheid planning, ie segregated, dormitory townships. In this context does the Western Cape government’s site-and-service housing policy represent an advance to sustainable settlements, or a retreat to apartheid toilets-in-the-veld?

I have recently been involved in assisting the municipalities of George, Hermanus, Kimberley, Knysna, Paarl, Saldanha and Stellenbosch, to draw up sustainable human settlement plans (HSPs), a statutory requirement. What struck me is the extent to which mainly poorer black residents of these places still live in segregated townships, many in the squalor of shanty structures, while the richer minority continue to live on the other side of the proverbial railway track, close to the centre of business and amenities.

Why is it that the government was willing and able expeditiously to fund massive infrastructure investments for the World Cup, but appears incapable of doing, or unwilling to do, the same in order to lay the basis for the type of settlements promoted in BNG and Isidima?

To answer this question we need to dig deeper than the popular descriptions “developmental state” and “mixed, market-based economy”.

In practice our “free market economy” is traversed with social inequities resulting in class conflict.

The power imbalances between the dominant and dominated classes at all levels is reflected in the very structures that make up the so-called developmental state.

Moeletsi Mbeki (Architects of Poverty, 2009) and Sampie Terreblanche (A History of Inequality in South Africa 1652-2002, 2002) have pointed out that the democratic SA state was formed out of intense lobbying by capital during the late 1980s and early 1990s: the “Mineral Energy Complex” – comprised of the mining industry, and its associated chemical and engineering industries and finance – was hegemonic among other factions of capital in negotiating a compromise with the ANC leadership at the negotiations at Codesa. What followed is the favoured laissez faire economic policy of the complex.

South Africa, under an ANC government, opened up its markets to international competition. This became the basis of the deindustrialisation of South Africa’s economy, with concomitant job losses and ensuing unemployment and impoverishment. So, instead of a developmental state, we should talk of a state that is subject to different class forces (represented by, inter alia, Cosatu and organised labour, big business, the emerging black bourgeoisie, including the “tenderpreneurs”, etc) and the changing policies and strategies adopted by the state that reflect the shifting balance of opposing class forces.

Judging by the living conditions of most working class people in South Africa, their influence has waned. South African society is characterised by enclaves of first world development located within a steadily expanding sea of poverty and growing social inequity. The dominated classes (70 percent of the population) live outside the walls of the gated upper and middle class communities, in degraded environments worlds apart from the modern SA that hosted the World Cup.

National government formulated and implemented the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (Gear) macro-economic policy that is part of the problem underlying the segregated and degraded living places for the majority. Municipalities are required by law to implement sustainable human settlement plans, within a context of national policies that undermine the very intervention that is necessary to achieve these.

Sustainable housing means development that happens within certain limits: firstly, decent housing that households from lower-income communities can actually afford; secondly, development that does not degrade the environment to the extent of putting future generations at risk; thirdly, development that happens within an acceptable carbon footprint; and, fourthly, development that draws on renewable resources (particularly in respect of energy).

BNG and Isidima have set themselves the challenge to shape the housing market to deliver equitably within these four limits. These are limits to growth economies: they imply a no-growth (or steady state) economy, which is the opposite of what we have, namely, a debt-funded growth economy, with which the precepts of Gear are consistent.

The near collapse of the global economy in 2008, triggered by the US sub-prime mortgage crisis, demonstrated the limits to debt-funded growth. The greater majority of South Africans are simply not bankable to the extent required for mortgage finance. While this “prudent lending” has been hailed as a strength of the SA banking sector, it excludes the majority from participating in economic prosperity through gearing housing assets.

As high land prices in well-located areas make private housing unaffordable for the majority, local governments need to make direct interventions to enable affordable housing for poorer communities on well-located land (i.e. not land on the peripheries of Khayelitsha). However, including affordable housing within the middle and upper income development markets will almost certainly depress these markets. Likewise, municipalities depend on rising secondary housing markets to expand their rates base, and thereby to sustain themselves financially. Suburban homeowners and municipalities have a vested interest in resisting integrated settlements.

These interests are well illustrated in the case of Stellenbosch, where overcrowding from Khayamandi spilt over into an informal settlement on the slopes of the Papegaaiberg just adjacent to the town’s industrial area, Plankenbrug, during 2002.

The location of settlement is favourable in terms of access to the industrial area (and work) and from there to other amenities of the town. Therefore, subdividing and servicing the stands of these occupiers, transferring tenure to them, and providing technical and financial support for them to consolidate their structures, could empower them, in ways reminiscent of John Turner’s (Housing as a Verb, 1972) vision of the empowering effect of self-help housing.

Several months ago, DA councillors Benninghoff Giliomee and Johannie Serdyn told a meeting of suburban homeowners, at which I was present, that the informal settlers on the Papegaaiberg could not be accepted because they had occupied the land illegally and were opposition (read ANC) supporters anyway. The DA’s constituency in Stellenbosch and other Western Cape towns where they hold sway, would like to retreat into gated communities rather than welcome a non-racial, inclusive society.

The new site-and-service policy announced recently by the DA provincial government is therefore more likely to perpetuate unsustainable, peripheral settlements, albeit serviced, than well-located self-help projects. As such the implementation of this policy is likely to result in the orderly urbanisation envisaged by the PW Botha administration during the 1980s when it tried to reform apartheid, using housing as the cutting edge of the strategy.

Ironically this will happen under the banner of “restructuring the apartheid landscape”!

Where is the social force likely to come from to drive the required transformation? The reactionary tendency of established housing classes, and the conquest of local public institutions and authorities by powerful private financial and development interests – using emerging BE elites as their proxies – suggests a politics of the grassroots, where urban social movements emerge to address the obstacles to transformation posed by a developer-local municipality-established homeowner classes complex as well as the constricting macro policies of the state.

The role of the independent trade union and community movements in South Africa’s transformation during the 1970s and 1980s is an example of how independent, grassroots, democratically-controlled urban social movements can become vehicles to fight for macro and local policies required to effect urban transformation and begin restructuring existing space economies.

There also needs to be an industrial strategy that encourages and protects local manufacturing as well as a different local government funding model.

The urban social movement in South Africa is at a nadir now compared to the heady days of the late-1970s and throughout the 1980s, a time when there was real potential for a transformative urban agenda. Gassroots structures are emerging vis a vis the service delivery protests, but the electorate generally still seems to view the ANC-as-government as the vehicle to deliver on their aspirations.

There is therefore not yet a significantly powerful and widespread urban social movement and mass consciousness that can have the effects required on the government’s macro policies and state programmes at the local level. Nevertheless the seeds of a strategic awareness are being planted by organisations like the Federation of the Urban Poor (FedUp) and abahlali Base Mjondolo (both shack dwellers’ organisations).

Progressive professionals interested in pro-poor reforms should consider ways of debating an alternative to the status quo.

This conversation cannot however happen in a voluntarist way: professionals individually and collectively reflect the broader social division of labour in our society, and many of us will continue to perform functions for public sector clients that objectively serve the interests of the dominant classes without being perturbed; those of us who are conscious of and live the contradiction between our ideal of a pro-poor city and our objective functions in professional work, neither individually nor collectively have the power to effect the significant political changes required to make sustainable human settlements not only possible but also likely to happen.

Ours is a role of encouraging debate, planting ideas and being available to support the birth as well as the autonomy of emerging social movements.

Dr Hendler is an independent development analyst and practitioner who advises on urban development and affordable housing and development finance.

This is part of a National Dialogue initiative launched in March by the Ministry of Economic Development in association with the Cape Times and the SA New Economics Network. Copies of earlier contributions to the dialogue can be found via the SANE website,