Category Archives: Adrian Hadland

Sunday Tribune: Second look at merits of shacks

Government and World Bank linked research institute reconsiders eradication….but their alternative is not clear…

Front Page
Second look at merits of shacks
February 17, 2008 Edition 1

There is a giant sign on Cape Town’s N2 highway next to Langa which proudly reads: Towards the eradication of slums.

Angled to catch the passing gaze of rush-hour traffic, the sign serves two purposes. It reassures commuters that there are plans to clear the unsightly shacks that line the route from the airport to the city, and it emphasises the government’s official attitude to informal housing. This is that slums and shacks need to be destroyed. They are bad, dirty, dangerous, unhealthy places and nobody should be made to live in them.

This attitude is reflected internationally – for instance, in the United Nations Millenium Development Goals which include the improvement in the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers by 2020.

It is also echoed locally with Housing Minister Lindiwe Sisulu declaring in parliament in 2004 that all shacks in South Africa would be eradicated within 10 years.

Increasingly, though, planners and development activists are arguing that the destruction of shacks may not be the best policy after all.

It’s all very well for the lives of 100 million shack dwellers to be improved, but there are an estimated one billion people living in informal settlements across the world. What happens to the other 900 million?

In our determination to build houses, however small and poorly constructed, in new suburbs that are sterile and inconvenient, are we losing sight of the needs and benefits of a social space that few genuinely believe will be eradicated forever in South Africa?

“We need to look at things differently,” says Moegsien Hendricks, a programme director for the Development Action Group. He was addressing a public debate in Stellenbosch last week on the question of slum eradication. Participants were asked: Are we on the right track?

The debate marked the launch of the University of Cape Town’s African Centre for Cities, a multi-disciplinary institute tasked with grappling with the challenges facing major urban centres on the African continent and beyond.

Hendricks argues that the government’s headlong determination to build as many houses as possible and to destroy as many shacks as they can has a range of negative consequences.

These include the ongoing stigmatisation of shack dwellers as being unwelcome, dirty, unhealthy and HIV/Aids-infected outsiders.


In some informal settlements, shacks are clean and well ordered, with lounges, televisions and fridges. “To call these people’s homes shacks is insulting to them,” said Hendricks.

The government’s assumption that all shacks are the same and need to be eradicated blurs the complexity of informal settlements.

“Strategies to eradicate or even upgrade informal housing that fail to acknowledge why people live where they do, will undermine the poor’s survival strategies,” said Hendricks.

Architect Mokena Makeka said the government in Thailand had five different strategies for dealing with informal settlement in the country. These were upgrading, reblocking (organising shelters into blocks to allow for roads and servitudes), land-sharing (which introduced a greater degree of security of tenure), reconstruction (where new houses were built adjacent to informal houses) and relocation.

“I don’t believe we have fully explored the range of options for dealing effectively with informal settlements,” Makeka said. “We have not developed strategic or informed choices. Until we understand the problem, we will find ourselves in a situation where solutions never meet the problem.”

He urged the government to focus less on the quantity of houses and more on how the texture of lives could be understood and enhanced. This included taking notice of what it was like for people to walk to school, go to the toilet, play a game, ask someone on a date or do their homework.

“If you get carried away with statistics and targets, you begin to lose the qualitative aspects of what makes us human beings,” he said.

Dan Smit, a government adviser and policy planner, admitted there had been a degree of ambivalence within the government towards both the complexity of informal settlements and the possibility that improving or even constructing informal homes could form part of the solution to the country’s housing crisis.

“There is a recognition that (informal settlements) play a role, but an unwillingness to accept those living conditions.”

Smit told the guests that a common international complaint about moving people out of shacks and into newly built homes was that people couldn’t afford their new places.

“That’s not the case here in South Africa. There are capital subsidies to put people on site . . . and supported with access to free services. ”

Smit added that South Africa had achieved a lot since 1994.

“The reality is that in South Africa in the past decade and a half, we have built 2.4 million houses. That is virtually unparalleled in the developing world, with the exceptions of India and China.”

Smit said there had been changes in policy, necessitated by demands from the people on the ground. Initially, the thinking was that the government would provide a site and a basic starter house, he said. Then, as people’s income improved, they could add on and extend.

“What has happened . . . is that the government is constantly being pushed to provide ‘more house’. The ‘unos’ that are being built are too small, even smaller than the matchbox houses of the apartheid era.”

Prof Edgar Pieterse, the director of the African Centre for Cities, said that despite the government’s commitment to improving the quality, rate of delivery and location of public housing, “the national housing programme is struggling to meet its ambitious objectives”.

This has prompted scholars and activists to confront a number of questions surrounding current housing policy: Is focusing all our energy on building houses the most appropriate use of resources? Is it possible for self-built informal dwellings to be places of beauty and dignity? Should we be providing support for the upgrading of shacks rather than just tearing them down?

These were among many issues that will be investigated by the interdisciplinary group of experts who have gravitated towards the African Centre for Cities, Pieterse said.

* Dr Adrian Hadland is a director at the democracy and governance research programme of the Human Sciences Research Council. He writes in his personal capacity.