Human Settlements In The Metros

This Brief discusses the Department of Human Settlements’ proposed re-orientation of its policies.

I am just going to pray for you at St. Paul’s, but with no very lively hope of success.
- Sydney Smith, after a quarrel

It was reported by Business Day on 16 November 2020[1] that the Department of Human Settlements is proposing to replace the current policy under which the government builds houses and hands them over. The new policy will be to give land to people for them to build their own houses. As the Minister explained:

We will be releasing land, cutting it out, fencing it off and giving it to beneficiaries. We will be providing them with the essentials of how to build a house.

At the time of reporting, the policy had yet to be approved by Cabinet and Parliament. Meanwhile, no new contracts for housing units may be entered into without approval of the Department.

We urge approval for the following reasons:

  1. At no time since 1994 has a policy of providing completed housing units to low income households had a chance of meeting the need for shelter. The Minister referred to the looming fiscal crisis and consequent cuts in the budgets of departments, with housing losing R 2 billion in 2020/21. But the existing policy has never been adequate to meet the need for shelter. Long waiting lists, accompanied by land invasions, have persisted for many years. Policy reform is overdue.

  2. A study published by the HSF in 2018[2] indicated that the greatest need for additional shelter is among poor households in the metros. Data on the geographical distribution of the population and migration from place to place are less coherent and less fully published than they ought to be. Our interpretation of the available information is that population growth in the metros is considerably faster than anywhere else in the country. The rural areas – both commercial farms and traditional – now have declining populations in absolute terms. Urban settlements, both formal and informal, in the traditional areas are likely to have more or less static populations. Non-metro urban populations outside traditional areas are growing, but at a much slower pace than metro populations. We have projected an average annual increase in metro households of about 230 000 between 2018 and 2024 and about 210 000 between 2024 and 2030. On top of this, the backlog needs to be accommodated.

  3. Unmet need in the metros is leading to land invasions and effectively to the disorderly expropriation without compensation that President Ramaphosa promised to avoid.  Karl Kemp’s recently published book[3] is at its best when it describes in detail how land invasions occur, especially in Johannesburg and Cape Town, and what their consequences are. Once started, they are inexorable and effectively diminish, if not extinguish the rights of the owners of properties on which they occur. Worst of all, as Kemp shows, the safety of existing occupants can be threatened.

  4. Land invasions are inefficient at a number of levels. What poor households need are well-situated serviced sites with clear rights of ownership, on which they can develop shelters over time. What they get from land invasions is far short of these requirements. Invaded land may be unsuitable for human habitation because it lies in flood plains, or on dolomite, or for other reasons. Relocation is invariably resisted and can lead to ugly confrontation. Land invasion is opportunistic and may take place in far from optimal locations. Poor location increases the costs of bulk infrastructure necessary to connect settlements to the existing metro system. The configuration of sites in a land invasion as well as post-settlement service installation are likely to make provision of services more difficult and expensive than in a properly planned settlement. To avoid these inefficiencies, government needs to get ahead in meeting requirements, rather than lagging behind.

  5. Site and service schemes should reflect resource availability on the part of the state and of households. They are most suitable for households short on cash and long on labour time. Building skills are widely distributed among poor households

  6. The provision of serviced sites is one component of a range of policies to optimize access to shelter. However, it is arguably the most urgent. Other components include, or should include:
    • Affordable housing finance to assist this growing segment by providing lump‐sum deposits to qualifying beneficiaries to lower their monthly mortgage repayments.
    • Social housing for households which cannot be expected to build for themselves, because of infirmity of their adult members.
    • Integration of shelter into inclusive, denser, mixed‐use urban areas.
    • The Centre of Development and Enterprise has argued that there is a great demand for rentals of small spaces in existing suburbs[4]. A “massive small” approach supports poor households and small and micro private developers densifying neighbourhoods by creating multi-unit rental dwellings and building additional low-cost rental accommodation in backyards. They argue that this approach could reduce the demand for new land, and the resulting urban sprawl, over the next 25 years by 70%. The public sector inputs required for the policy are an adjustment of housing regulations and services by municipalities, more development finance at rates which would make its provision possible, and a reorientation of infrastructure grants from national government to fund the cost to the metros to waive bulk infrastructure contributions from densification developers and to expand and upgrade bulk infrastructure serving the relevant areas. A tilt towards metros would be justified in efficiency terms. The opportunities for productive employment are greater there than anywhere, which is why their population is growing fast.

      We support the development of a comprehensive set of options to serve the full range of households needing shelter. The trick is to find an appropriate balance in fiscally constrained circumstances.

  7. A note on the foreigners in our midst. In his investigations, Kemp found a widespread perception, especially in Johannesburg, that foreigners are responsible for much of land invasion. It is impossible to tell how much of this is based on fact, and how much on urban legend, just as it is impossible to know how many foreigners reside in South Africa.[5] Nigerians, for instance, have a reputation which far outweighs their actual presence in the country. Kemp, like many of his respondents, believes better border control is needed. Indeed, any country should have control of its borders and a well thought out policy about immigration and naturalization. But three factors make complete success impossible: our long northern border, the propensity of sub-Saharan African countries to produce political crises and failed states, and relentless population pressure.[6] Xenophobia is not an appropriate response. It demeans South Africa and it hampers out diplomatic relations and economic integration with the rest of the continent, from which we have much to gain. Reasonable accommodation is required, also in access to shelter.


The difficulties of a re-orientation of human settlements policy should not be underestimated. The making and defending of new policy is only the starting point. Then comes the time necessary to change course, as existing contracts are executed and paid for. During this period new capacity and practice will need to be developed to harness resources and energy to new goals.

We have heard much about the developmental state over the past twenty-five years. We shall hear much more. It is the amour propre of the public administrative and ruling political class. But in reality, we have a donkey cart state with the body image of a high end Porsche. Much will be achieved if we attach a sound housing policy headlight to it.

Charles Simkins
Head of Research

[1] Linda Ensor, State will give land not houses, says Lindiwe Sisulu, Business Day, 16 November 2020

[3] Karl Kemp, Promised Land: Exploring South Africa’s Land Conflict, Penguin Random House, 2020

[4] See Ann Bernstein and Matthew Nell, We need a radical rethink on housing and urban development, Daily Maverick, 10 November 2020, available at

[5] Our estimate is that there are about two million foreign born people in South Africa, of whom two-thirds were born in Zimbabwe, Mozambique or Lesotho. See Charles Simkins, What does the 2016 Community Survey tell is about immigration and emigration of the foreign born? HSF Brief, 12 April 2017.

[6] On the latter, see Charles Simkins, The coming demographic crisis in sub-Saharan Africa, HSF brief, 14 January, 2019.