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The new impetus given to Informal Settlement Upgrading in South Africa

Isandla Institute | 2021-06-30 | 645 views

In her recent address on the Human Settlements Budget Vote, Minister Sisulu dedicated R10 billion to address the ‘nightmare’ of informal settlements over the next 3 years. This denotes a significant shift from previous stances taken by the National Department of Human Settlements – under Sisulu’s leadership – to either ‘eradicate’ informal settlements or have informal settlement upgrading eclipsed by ambitious housing projects.

The shift represents a sense of pragmatism: an acceptance that informal settlements are an enduring feature of the urban landscape, combined with the realisation that the public housing programme cannot resolve the housing crisis fast enough. The contraction of the economy as a result of Covid-19 is further putting these choices – between housing projects and informal settlement upgrading – into stark relief. The directive to provinces and municipalities therefore is to prioritise the delivery of serviced sites (UISP Phase 3 and IRDP serviced sites) and to significantly downscale the delivery of public housing units.

National government has set a target of upgrading 1,500 informal settlements to UISP Phase 3 over the next 5 years. Cities, other municipalities and provinces are expected to make this ambition a reality. While setting targets provides a clear indication of what government is striving towards – which in this case is a significant improvement in the living conditions of nearly half of the informal settlements across the country – one of the as yet unanswered questions is: how did national government arrive at this target? It doesn’t seem that this was informed by a bottom-up approach, with municipalities and provinces indicating what they thought would be achievable within the next 5 years. And now that the target has been set, there also doesn’t seem to be a clear strategy to distribute the responsibility for informal settlement upgrading in a fair and reasonable manner to specific municipalities and provinces, so that the set goal can be achieved.

It is often equally unclear what kind of evidence is used to inform human settlements budgets and strategies at the city level. In reviewing city data for the Planning4Informality web-tool, the lack of information in city documents raised many ‘red flags’ in our scoring, as it illustrates a gap in strategic targeting. As much as the Minister may have, rather flippantly perhaps, said that we don’t need statistics to see the explosion of informal settlements in urban areas, the lack of data in official documents hinders strategic planning, budgetary targeting and accountability to informal settlement residents.

Upgrading to UISP Phase 3 involves tangible, measurable inputs such as land; taps and toilets; social amenities; economic and social facilities; and, Housing Support Centres as well as more qualitatively defined outputs such as social compacts (between municipalities and communities); tenure security; reliable basic services; locally appropriate, vibrant facilities; and, technically competent and supportive Housing Support Centres. While some of these are easier to report on than others, it is important that the National Department of Human Settlements has a system in place that allows all these dimensions of informal settlement upgrading to be assessed to ensure that the policy objectives of tenure security, health and security, and empowerment are achieved.

For the 2020/21 financial year, Cities reported on the estimated housing backlog and delivery per annum, as illustrated below (data reflected on the P4I webtool).

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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