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The State of Land Release in South Africa

Isandla Institute | 2021-09-01 | 3347 views

In November 2020, the national Department of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation announced with great fanfare that the government will no longer prioritise building houses for qualifying applicants, but instead focus its interventions on providing serviced land which people can use to build their homes themselves. The reprioritisation is ostensibly a response to the call for land made by the landless as well as enterprising individuals unwilling to languish on ubiquitous and obscure housing waiting lists. Moreover, the shrinking housing budget and at that, a significant part of the fiscus having to be diverted towards the country’s COVID-19 response has made continued provision of subsidised housing unsustainable.

There is little information or evidence in the public domain with regards to this shift, which has left civic bodies and communities/potential beneficiaries with more questions than answers. Mostly, the absence of a clearly defined policy and implementation strategy makes it difficult to assess the extent to which government has thought through the new approach. There are numerous concerns that require clarity and further discussion, either through policy or an engaging and meaningful public participation process.

The government has acknowledged that it faces several challenges with upgrading informal settlements, indicating that it is a costly and slow process that can take up to seven or eight years to reach completion. Consequently, greenfields projects that take up to three years are preferred. A major problem with most greenfields projects, however, is that they perpetuate existing spatial disparities given their poor location and poor accessibility to economic opportunities. In part, this is due to the challenges municipalities experience in accessing and pipelining well-located land for human settlements.

What then is the potential of the site and service model to accelerate efforts to address growing informality, particularly with the imperative of achieving more spatially equitable and inclusive neighborhoods as a core objective? At face value, the new policy direction has possibly far-reaching consequences, with the potential to fast-track access to land for the landless and households in desperate need of secure tenure and decent accommodation.

A key determinant of successful implementation of the rapid land release programme will be whether suitable, well-located land can be made available at scale and at a much more rapid pace than what is currently the case.

The Department of Public Works (DPW) – the custodian of public land – reported that they had taken some steps in this direction. Earlier this year, the Department stated that their property portfolio comprised of 29,041 land parcels and 81,573 buildings – of which 9,736 are vacant land parcels that can be put towards achieving spatial justice across cities. Comparatively, in 2018, the Department indicated that their portfolio consisted of 29,322 land parcels and 93,943 buildings. Of this, 9,653 were vacant land parcels (including erven (urban land); agricultural holdings (peri-urban plots) and farms) as well as 1,989 vacant buildings. Looking at these numbers, it does not appear as if the stated commitment towards land release for housing finds expression in practice. That is unless the department acquired portions of land to offset the balance, which would justify the marginal number of vacant land and buildings having being released for human settlements. Nevertheless, the Department has noted its intentions to release another 10,951 hectares for human settlements; 180 hectares for other socio-economic purposes and 21,132 hectares for land restitution, in 2021/22.

Going forward, the state must realise that it cannot be business as usual (especially, as with greenfields projects) if the lofty ideals of the site and service model are to be reached. Circumventing difficulties in current land use and management processes to access land and reduce delays is paramount.

National state departments have an important role to play in supporting municipalities to implement the rapid land release programme, evidently, first and foremost by unlocking public land to facilitate land release for human settlements developments. Municipalities are not exempt from this requirement, also having a responsibility to strengthen efforts aimed at utilising vacant land and buildings they own in implementing the programme. Moreover, the National Treasury must assist local government through capacity building and training to equip implementing agents/officials to give effect to the rapid land release programme. Similarly, municipalities must support beneficiaries to understand the objectives and intended outcomes of the site and service model, how it interlinks with the national housing programme, the tenure security arrangements, their responsibilities in relation to top structure development, etc.

Finally, successful implementation of the programme will require a people-centered and participatory approach. Current participatory mechanisms that fall short of being meaningful must be specifically geared and re-engineered to accommodate engagements within the rapid land release programme. The lack of information and the failure to consult widely with both beneficiaries and civil society organisations concerning such a key shift in policy direction does not bode well for subsequent implementation. Clearly, much more deliberation and open dialogue regarding the state’s move towards rapid land release is needed.

Written by Querida Saal & Helen Rourke from THE DEVELOPMENT ACTION GROUP

Parliamentary Monitoring Group (PMG), n.d. Informal Settlements, Available: [30 August 2021].
Minister Patricia De Lille. 2021. Public Works and Infrastructure Dept Budget Vote 2021/22, 25 May, Cape Town [Online] Available: [24 August 2021].
Parliamentary Monitoring Group (PMG), 2018. Assets On Immovable Asset Register: Department Briefing With Deputy Minister [Online]. Available: [26 August 2021].

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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