Informal settlement upgrading: How is it done?

Informal settlements located in inner city and peripheral urban areas poses daunting challenges for achieving liveable neighbourhoods, but if incrementally developed, these could hold promise for achieving more socially just cities, especially in our highly segregated cities. These settlements are also often well-located, which means they are closer to jobs, amenities, and social services. Is government responding adequately to these settlements? There are promising signs, but a closer reading shows how business as usual is being masked behind delivery targets. 

Since the late 1980s, when the apartheid pass-law system was disbanded, rural to urban migration, or urbanisation, have radically transformed South African cities. Informal settlements have been an enduring feature of the post-apartheid urban landscape. Upgrading these settlements to well serviced and integrated neighborhoods poses a daunting challenge. And the challenge is significant: today there are 2,700 informal settlements, compared to about 400 in 1994. About one in five people live in a shack. 

In her book The Power of ApartheidProfessor of Geography Jenny Robinson argues that the apartheid state maintained its rule through the 'organisation of urban space into racially segregated living areas’ by deploying ‘spatial technologies of power which emerged in the arena of state intervention in the city’. She argues that informal settlements holds much promise for achieving more inclusive cities since these ‘undermined the apartheid patterning of the city’. 

In performance reporting, housing projects are sometimes repackaged as informal settlement upgrading. (Source: Niels Frydenholm, Google Plus Images CC, 17 Nov 2014)

In performance reporting, housing projects are sometimes repackaged as informal settlement upgrading. (Source: Niels Frydenholm, Google Plus Images CC, 17 Nov 2014)

To date, the government's response to this urban crisis has been to give qualifying families a government-subsidised freestanding 40sqm house in a traditional township layout. These so-called "match box" houses in grid-like street patterns are a common feature across South Africa. A narrow focus on alleviating the housing crisis by providing year-on-year fewer families a house has neglected other approaches, such as informal settlement upgrading, to act on the constitutional mandate of progressively providing access to adequate housing. 

There are promising signs that the National Department of Human Settlements is seriously considering upgrading informal settlements. This commitment is needed, because compared to housing projects, upgrading informal settlement is often times more complex process, and requires dedicated capacity building. For example, city officials are ill prepared to deal with issues of community participation, non-standard town planning, and briefing engineers on difficult infrastructure projects. 

Because obviously, we are civil [engineering] people. Give us a road to build or sewerage to install and we can do that. But, and I think that is one of our shortfalls, we don’t always know how to facilitate. We have tried to do this all along – we try and manage it as a whole.
— City council official, Human Settlements department

In the Department’s Medium Term Expenditure Framework (MTEF) [PDF, 504kb] which spells out the funding allocations and programme focus areas to National Treasury, the Department aims to upgrade 750,000 informal settlement households in the period 2015 – 2019. This new performance target is an update of the 2010 – 2014 target of upgrading 400,000 households, which then represented about 30% of informal settlement families. 

Upgrading 750,000 households over five years is a daunting challenge, considering that government is only providing 150,000 housing opportunities per annum. Political commitments to upgrade informal settlements such as these are relatively new. Dedicated programmes such as the National Upgrading Support Programme (NUSP) has been setup to bolster municipal capacity to address the challenges associated with informal settlements.

To date, 53 municipalities have been supported by NUSP. Such support has included rapidly assessing and categorizing informal settlements, formulation of municipal strategies, resource allocation, and to a lesser extent, detailed settlement planning, informal economy stimulation and protocols for engaging communities. 

The UISP provides for flexibility, but is essentially a "Structured programme". (Source: Department of Human Settlements, process guide [PDF, 1,8mb])

The MTEF 2015 – 2019 targets calls for government agencies to utilise the Upgrading Informal Settlements Programme (UISP) [PDF, 995kb], a subsidy described in Part 3 of the National Housing Code. By 2019, government needs to display evidence that 750,000 households were upgraded to stages 2 and 3, which, according to the UISP policy, means full engineering services (roads, infrastructure, facilities), draft township layout plans and land acquisition. 

If this UISP policy is so important, why do we hear so little about it? It is hard to determine how well government is utilising the UISP policy, because by the Department of Human Settlement’s own admission [see my 2015 article], limited impact assessments and post-implementation studies have been commissioned and completed. We simply do not know if this UISP policy, which is deemed as one of the Department’s most important programmes, is working in practice. 

A closer reading of the projects on the ground shows a disjuncture between the policy's intention, and implementation. I have written a paper about this in the State of Local Governance publication, and will summarise my findings. For one, the Department reported that they met the 400,000 upgrading target in 2014, but truthfully, only about 10% (estimation) of these were real upgrading, or UISP, projects. The rest were conventional housing projects. Why do we have upgrading targets if we are not changing our practice? Then also, in the cases where upgrading projects were successful, you will notice that large engineering companies almost exclusively drive the projects. Govan Mbeki award winning projects illustrate this point. Without functionally incorporating community's voices and aspirations, how will the project be sustainable in the long run?

We need to return to the policy intention, because the policymakers of UISP designed a solid programme. Firstly, they envisaged a central role for community members in the planning of informal settlement upgrading, and allocated 3% of the total project budget to social facilitation. Secondly, the goals of the programme aims to immediately improve living conditions (such as basic water, sanitation, electricity, and waste removal services), alleviate public health concerns (by improving access to primary care) and instituting a progress land tenure regime (by means of administrative tenure, purchasing and transferring land, and flexible standards). And lastly, the UISP makes an 8% allocation of effective project management, which is essential in this programme, considering the complexity of informal settlement upgrading. 

In conclusion, the UISP policy allows for a structured approach to informal settlement upgrading, which starts with delivering basic services, and ends in well planned neighborhoods. However, there are major disjunctures between the intention of the policy and perceived implementation on the ground.

One of the primary causes for this disjuncture is that informal settlement upgrading projects are treated as conventional “turn-key” housing projects, rather than a much more empowering, participatory and collaborative planning exercise, guided by principles of good governance. 

Related posts:

Further reading:

  1. Fieuw, W. 2015. 'Deep Rooted Knowledge'? Assessing the lack of community participation in UISP projects. In State of Local Governance 2015: In pursuit of Responsible and Responsive Government.