Informal settlements have been part of the Gauteng urban landscape since the dawn of the repressive apartheid laws. Fast forward into the new democratic dispensation and the situation has worsened. These forms of settlements have been increasing at rates far surpassing state sponsored delivery of affordable housing in well located areas. This has been further exasperated during the COVID-19 pandemic, as it is estimated that the number of people living in informal settlements have increased during this period. Informal settlements have remained sites of poverty traps, with access to basic services in short supply even before the pandemic.
The association between urban planning and sanitation has existed for many centuries, and one can find many examples of ‘shanty towns’ mostly forcibly occupied by Africans, where diseases ravaged communities due to the overcrowding conditions and lack of access to basic services. It is unfortunate that conditions continue to persist in the face of planning instruments that are well advanced. In many metropolitan areas in South Africa, planning instruments somehow lag behind what is happening on the ground, and often impede any progress or reinforce existing conditions. Ideally, land use management tools such as by-laws or town planning schemes, function as planning instruments that ensure the strategic development of transport, housing or economic infrastructure. Further, when enacted accordingly, these instruments can uphold property values and safeguard
investments within a municipality’s jurisdiction, or even distribute wealth.
However, in an unequal society as ours these planning instruments end up further reinforcing exclusionary land use practices, the cause of which is our complex history and current inabilities to deal with rapid growth. Urban land use systems have unfortunately not been adequately enacted in the way it was envisioned to create a just society.
Municipal by-laws are laws made and executed by a municipality’s executive council. They regulate the affairs and services within a municipality’s jurisdictional area. Municipalities have a range of by-laws that govern land use and building regulations. For instance when it comes to building a house, a municipality has a number of controls for instance a town planning scheme sets parameters on the property such as building coverage, what uses are permitted, maximum building height etc. These controls often impede substantially on informal settlements or townships, and even with post-apartheid laws somehow the constraints still remain. Besides many townships having transformed into multi-use spaces, were the houses have backyard rental rooms, or ‘spaza’ shops or pavements have been appropriated by informal traders, often zoning laws remain constrained to single-use ‘residential’ sites thus ignoring the reality on the ground.
Land use management unfortunately remains untransformed and rigid with little consideration for radical solutions that can change our cities’ urban structure and form. This creates an environment that is obstructive in accessing urban land for the poor and therefore inhibiting the upward movement to a better life. While land use laws were necessary for the pre-21st century city, the post-21st century South African city context requires innovation in the approach taken.