From Housing to Human Settlements

Olga Koma (SACN) and Stacey-Leigh Joseph (SACN)

The South African story is one that has been told countless times, how we emerged from an oppressive political system and forged a democratic one. At the advent of South African democracy, the newly elected government was faced with the mammoth task of rectifying the injustices of the past. Fast forward 20 years and we should be applauded for how far we have come. The complexities that were inherited required unprecedented levels of problem solving and implementation strategies. In 1994, the ANC government instituted a housing and land reform programme to address the socio-economic-spatial disparities, a direct result of apartheid spatial planning. The White Paper on Housing, government committed to “the establishment of viable, socially and economically integrated communities situated in areas allowing convenient access to economic opportunities as well as health, educational and social amenities”.

Over the next five years, the state pledged to build 1 million houses and by 2003, the mandate was achieved. Quite extraordinary as no other government in the world has ever achieved such a task. One of the many criticisms of the housing policy however, was that it – by virtue of providing poor quality housing in peripheral areas - produced neighbourhoods that reinforced the same apartheid legacies we were trying to rectify. Another critique is that the delivery of housing is a concurrent function across the three spheres of government. Though the local sphere is where implementation takes place and local government is often the implementing agent, the authority for housing delivery rests mainly with the national and provincial spheres. Moving from housing to human settlements needs to be understood within this context. An important debate over the past two decades has been whether local government is best placed for realising this shift towards sustainable human settlements. Framing this debate at present is the role of sustainable human settlements in transforming the spatial form, a task considered to be best undertaken by local government.

By 2004, the Breaking New Ground (BNG) housing policy was introduced to complement the White Paper by moving the focus from housing towards sustainable human settlements (SHS). Housing was seen as the instrument that could drive spatial restructuring if delivered parallel to accessible, safe and efficient public transport and basic amenities. BNG highlighted a critical shift towards recognising the role of informal settlements and incorporating informality as an important form of shelter. New instruments recognised informality and the need for various housing typologies leading to the introduction of the Upgrading Informal Settlements Programme (UISP) and the Social Housing Programme to address the need for rental. Other programmes aimed to address the lack of financing for and availability of affordable housing. Importantly, BNG emphasised that local government should be the sphere responsible for human settlements delivery and identified this as a key priority.

The delivery of housing is subject to a complex set of funding frameworks. This has been one of the major challenges when it comes to implementing sustainable human settlements, as the current fiscal framework is not geared towards the integration necessary for building sustainable human settlements. Similarly, the institutional arrangements that are required for creating integrated, sustainable settlements where plans for public transport, housing, economic and social development, health and education are aligned do not currently exist. It is important that in implementing SHS all these institutions coordinate; an extremely difficult task. SHS planning requires high-level skills in coordinating the internal and external actors over the life cycle of the planning project. Though local government may not currently possess all the requisite skills, plans and implementation overlap in this space and thus capacitating this sphere for more effective delivery and implementation is essential. Underpinned by effective governance structures and improved management, local government can give effect to this broader expanded mandate.

Understanding how people navigate the city is also equally important towards achieving the shift from housing to SHS. Urbanisation is a critical reality that adds to the already difficult housing backdrop in South Africa. With this growth comes increased demand for services, jobs, land and housing. There is thus significant pressure on our cities to get this right. Understanding the movement of people and the decisions they make will better equip the state and city governments in particular, to come up with solutions that are suited to their contexts. For example, first time entries into the city are through accessing informal shelter in areas where they may have existing networks. This is followed by decisions based on access to employment, job opportunities, education and social services. Thus for a population that is young and dynamic rental-housing options may be a more feasible alternative to ownership. Participative planning where there is consensus amongst various stakeholders, public and private, is important for developing better more sustainable responses. Participation within the SHS narrative is vital and cannot be ignored if we are to achieve sustainable settlement development that contributes toward transforming our towns and cities.

The SACN book From Housing to Human Settlements: Evolving Perspectives presents a range of discussions around various topics related to SHS. The publication reflects on the visions, challenges and possibilities of creating SHS. The move from housing towards human settlements is not going to be an easy task for any government. The pertinent issues that are raised include the need to review the fiscal and institutional structures for the creation of sustainable human settlements. Alignment of plans horizontally and vertically across sector departments is a key step to better integration of the built environment especially critical functions like housing, public transport, and land management. Effective governance and leadership underpin these as long term spatial transformation has to be adequately driven and supported. Ensuring that there is active engagement and buy-in through adequate participation processes with communities that are being planned for, private sector and the state is another crucial ingredient for longer term success. Though not presented as an exhaustive input and reflection of the human settlements sector, it is hoped that this book begins to take forward the debate about what it means to build human settlements that transforms our spatial inheritance and brings us closer to the development vision of the NDP.

This book will be launched on 18 September 2014. For more information visit