Nelson Mandela Foundation

A critical issue we need to grapple with in post-apartheid South Africa is informality and inequality, owing to apartheid and post-apartheid urbanisation pressures, specifically around access to well-located urban land. 

More robust action is needed around how we manage urban land in a manner that ensures that poor households can access well located land. Unfortunately, the current way in which the urban land market operates has failed to distribute land and has further exacerbated inequalities. There are scholars and activists that argue that market-oriented policies are inadequate in dealing with increasing informality as well as land redistribution. In the absence of effective regulatory instruments redistribution will simply not occur. 

While there have been some efforts from the policy side to ensure fair land distribution patterns, in the context of the realities on the ground, we need more practical policy implementation. In the last few years there have been calls for the use and release of vacant and under-utilised state-owned land. To varying degrees, some have heeded the call such as the Department of Public Works and Infrastructure (DPWI). These land parcels should ideally be used for low income housing projects. There exist very few housing options for the urban poor in the formal market, whereas in the informal market there are more options available for poor households.

In the context of these exclusionary practices, the urban poor are left with little choice but to find other ways of accessing land and housing. In Gauteng, some have resorted to using alternative methods in accessing urban land such as “backyarding.

This is a process whereby home owners – normally in former townships – rent out a portion of their yard, a backyard shack or room to occupants. “Backyarding has increased phenomenally over the years. According to StatsSA, households living in formal or informal dwellings in backyards increased from 1.135-million in 2011 (7.3% of the country total), to 1.835-million in 2016 (12.5% of the total). An example of this is “Sophie – who grew up in Tembisa, qualifies for a bond and buys a 3 bedroom house on a 450m2 property in Ivory Park. A densely populated suburb North-East of Tembisa which has grown substantially over the years. Sophie, then decides to build outside rooms on the yard in order to supplement her formal income. These rooms she rents out for an amount ranging between R1 000 and R1 500.”   

In the context of informal settlements, access and ownership can be in the form of accessing under-utilised land, and then building shacks (which can gradually be upgraded to a formal dwelling overtime). Informal settlements do not offer the best security of tenure and often rely on social ties with local community-based organisations and neighbours. RDP houses on the other hand, while they offer secure tenure they are usually located on the outskirts of cities thus making accessibility to economic opportunities difficult. Additionally, accessing an RDP house is increasingly challenging due to the housing backlog which in Gauteng alone currently stands at 1.2-million (Gauteng Department of Human Settlements). 

In the inner city of Johannesburg, there are thousands of poor people that live in what is termed “bad buildings” which are buildings that are derelict and have absentee owners. The living conditions are often dire, as some of these buildings do not have access to or have low levels of access to services such as water and electricity. One of the key factors why people live in these inner city buildings is because they offer great location and access to economic markets, even at the risk of insecurity of tenure and harassment by city officials. Residents of these buildings have in the past won court judgements against local government’s mishandling of their rights.

Formal land markets, although functional, exclude the majority of the urban poor who are often marginalised and have to resort to alternative (complex) forms of accessing land and housing. Thus the emergence of parallel urban land markets in the poorer parts of South African cities. Although complex, these parallel markets offer quick and easy access to spaces that are well located, have established transit routes, affordable and at times prove to offer future prospects for accessing formal housing. 

There is a definite need beyond the current offerings to include a wider range of subsidised housing options especially for those in the lowest income brackets. And of the existing offerings such as back yard rentals, this should be stimulated and encouraged by easing access to finance and loans. 

Where bad buildings are concerned, there are a number of grassroots organisations that have come up with strategies on how to protect occupants and ensure that they operate within the arms of the law. This has been achieved through collaborating with city officials in some instances, and in others through undertaking their own management in order to showcase alternative ways in which local government can approach access to housing for the poor.