by Piet Coetzer


Rapid urban growth at root of social ills

Informal settlements

The ever-quickening process of rapid urbanisation poses major challenges to South Africa and is a key issue in the endemic service delivery protests and the recent mine unrest at Marikana.  

South Africa is, however, not alone in facing the challenges posed by rapid urbanisation. In its report, The Infrastructure 100: World Cites Edition, international consulting firm KPMG’s Global Infrastructure practice states, “There is no time to waste (with infrastructure planning for cities). In the developing world, the urban population is expected to jump by more than 1.3 billion over the next two decades, with each new entrant seeking better employment opportunities and higher quality of living that can only be delivered through efficient and effective urban infrastructure.”

And it is not only the developing world that is challenged. The KPMG report goes on to state that in “the developed world, too, a massive amount of new infrastructure will be needed to meet the growing and shifting demands of established urban populations. Rapid urbanisation is not the only change facing urban infrastructure planners. Technology is sprinting away at an amazing pace.”

Already, towards the end of the apartheid era, the then South African government faced massive problems in most metropolitan areas with developments like the proliferation of squatter camps and informal human settlements despite racial restrictions on the movements of black people. They tasked a committee of the President’s Council to look into an urbanisation strategy for the country. Before the work of that committee could come to any meaningful fruition, the constitution negotiations and new dispensation of the early 1990s was upon the country.

With the lifting of racial restrictions on where people could live and work during the transition to full democracy, many unemployed in the erstwhile homelands migrated to the major cities in search of work and better opportunities. On the back of massive expectations accompanying the new political dispensation, they brought their families with them.

At the mines, the old dispensation of housing migrant workers in single-sex hostels was just not good enough any more. Neither the mines nor the municipalities where they were situated had planned for or could cope with this huge influx of people.

What has subsequently happened at Marikana, almost 18 years later, illustrated the dangers of the frustrations that are now building up within communities as the shortage of accommodation and services in urban areas force them to live in shack-towns or squatter camps on open land.

Not only does this infringe on the rights of legal landowners, but it also often leads to tensions with existing communities, many of whom are already suffering from inadequate services. Smooth delivery of housing is also complicated by the fact that  members of established communities have often been on waiting lists for many years.

This situation creates added pressures for South Africa on a continent where in general it is expected that cities will grow three times faster than the global average over the decades to 2050. Extremely efficient, effective and environmentally sustainable urban infrastructure development is sorely needed

Various South African government plans and programmes, including those for infrastructure investment, land reform and housing seem to address only the symptoms of the challenge. Just recently, President Jacob Zuma, in an address to the African Smallholders Association of South Africa emphasised that the promotion of smallholder farming could help curb urban migration and reduce people's dependence on social grants.

In his mid-term budget address to Parliament, minister of finance, Pravin Gordhan,  referred to the important role South Africa’s cities have to play in the economic development of the country.

The magnitude of the problem of rapid urbanisation, and illustrating that the problem is escalating, is borne out by some recent housing statistics: In the early 1980s there was one formal house for every 3,5 white people in South Africa, and only one formal house for every 43 black people. In 1989, what is now Gauteng had 412 000 formal houses in black townships, with 422 000 shacks in township backyards and a further 635 000 on vacant land. Outside the rural areas, the housing shortage is now at least 850 000.

More than seven million people throughout the country live in shacks with 2.5 million of those on the Witwatersrand.

It will take innovative thinking and planning to come to grips with the challenges associated with rapid urbanisation, including the threat to social stability. Perhaps the time has come to re-look at some of the suggestions in the old President’s Council report, at least as a point of departure in developing an integrated, holistic urbanisation strategy.

For instance, the cost of providing adequate housing will always remain a challenge. Experience elsewhere in the world,  for example in Mexico, has shown that if security of tenancy on land they occupy is given to people living in informal settlements they will use their own means to upgrade their areas.

Not much will happen to alleviate the frustrations of those living in informal settlements around the mines, even if they get substantial increases in remuneration. That will not do much to alleviate their plight if there is simply no housing stock available.

One possibility would be to make land with at least the most basic infrastructure available and allow people to start off with their own informal structures. If they know it is their own property and there are some basic incentives it is a good bet that they will upgrade on their own account over time.

If South Africa is to come to grips with its urbanisation problem, there will have to be some “outside the box” thinking by political leadership.


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