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Are metros really planning for informality?

Isandla Institute | 2022-11-18 | 292 views

The Planning for Informality web tool has recently been updated based on publicly available 2021/2022 municipal documentation for the eight metropolitan municipalities (metros) in South Africa. The tool, launched in August 2017, tracks South African metropolitan municipalities in their response to informal settlements and backyard housing, based on reporting and policy commitments in core annual municipal documentation. A better understanding of informality in South African metros allows for better decision-making and analysis, and comprehensive informal upgrading strategies and plans are important elements in achieving upgrading targets. The tool also opens up data on municipal upgrading plans and strategies to a wider audience to strengthen transparency and accountability.

It indicates the commitments made by the eight largest South African cities in upgrading informal settlements and improving backyard dwelling conditions. Using core municipal documents in the public domain, the tool assesses the policy commitments, programmes and projects of each city in line with guidelines for best practice, such as incremental and participatory upgrading. However, it is not a qualitative assessment of city strategies. A scorecard system is used to appraise commitments by metros towards informal settlement upgrading targets, which include issues of land, organisational capacity, budgets, spatial targeting and programmatic approaches (e.g. assessment and categorisation of informal settlements).

The tool shows the level of commitment by metros to participatory informal settlement upgrading; stimulates evidence-based dialogue and actions by municipal representatives and other stakeholders; highlights areas needing more dedicated support, capacity, resources or a change in thinking; and promotes accountability. It is primarily offered as a tool for civil society organisations and local communities seeking to engage their city in pursuing appropriate and inclusive local action; and to allow residents to approach municipalities with the data from the tool in order to verify claims made in respect of commitments to participatory incremental informal settlement upgrading.

The tool currently focuses on the 2021-2026 IDP period, as well as the 2019-2024 Medium-Term Strategic Framework (MTSF) human settlements targets. In this 5-year cycle of MTSF targets, the National Department of Human Settlements has remained committed to the upgrading of informal settlements. Amid the housing shortage, and in the context of fiscal constraints and the de-prioritisation of new large-scale public housing projects and budget constraints, government is shifting focus to providing serviced sites. Due to the acknowledged scarcity of state-owned land, and to promote spatial transformation, the major focus must overwhelmingly be on incremental in-situ upgrading, as informal settlements are often situated in well-located areas in terms of access to employment and public services.

The current Planning for Informality review suggests that upgrading targets are set low across metros and that this is based on a narrow interpretation of site and service provision, rather than full upgrading to UISP phase 3. Furthermore, the issue of working with communities and advancing incremental upgrading through social compacts does not seem to be given much emphasis.

The review of municipal documentation revealed not only a lack of updated data on informal settlements and commitments to participatory incremental informal settlement upgrading, but a dearth of data on the nature and extent of backyard housing and commitments to coordinated and holistic support to this form of housing. However, more than 1 in 7 urban households live in backyard housing, and research suggests that – at least in pre-Covid years – growth in backyard housing outpaces the growth in informal settlements. Metros appear to be relying on outdated Census 2011 data, rather than gathering more up to date information on the nature and scale of informal backyard housing. While metros do make mention of backyarding as a housing strategy, few have dedicated programmatic responses to improve the access to services and quality of structures, as well as other issues facing backyard landlords and tenants.

While the Planning for Informality tool is intended to strengthen transparency and accountability around municipal upgrading plans and strategies, it only as good as the data that its annual reviews are based on. Unfortunately, metros don’t always include all relevant data in the publicly accessible municipal documentation used for this purpose. In the current review of municipal documentation, all metros appear to have taken a step backwards in terms of providing the relevant information against which their progress towards participatory incremental informal settlement upgrading, and support of backyard housing, can be assessed.

Notwithstanding the limitations, the tool is a useful yardstick for gauging whether metros are prioritising incremental neighbourhood development in existing informal settlements, and support for the vital backyard housing sector. We call on civic actors and communities to critically engage their metros on their commitments and their performance in this regard.



Slum upgrading remains the most financially and socially appropriate approach to addressing the challenge of existing slums. UN Habitat (A Practical Guide to Designing, Planning, and Executing Citywide Slum Upgrading Programmes 2015 (PDF), page 15)

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