The ongoing South African parliamentary process on land expropriation with the intention to amend the constitution indicates important and yet polarised views about expropriation of land without compensation. The fundamental arguments advanced in the ongoing discussions are largely focused on the need for expropriation to address the longstanding/ historical inequities of land ownership in the context of rural agricultural land.

Perhaps this might be due to the perception that the housing crisis in urban areas is not caused by the lack of access to land but rather an issue of inefficient government programmes and prevailing private market forces that are inept in addressing this crisis. Several academics and civil society activists are sceptical, as any redistribution of urban land, particularly for housing, is at best sluggish. District six and many other urban land reform processes are a testimonial to this. At this pace, we would need another century before any substantive change is realised.

In this shrinking economy, the rising cost of living, prevalent corruption and lethargy, we are facing an uphill race against a ticking clock of discontent and dissatisfaction. Despite close to 2,400 informal settlements nationally, the same land developmental rules apply to a hotel in Sandton, as to an informal settlement. It is no surprise that addressing the issue of urban land and housing has little light at the end of the tunnel. Given these facts, what would a complete overhaul of urban land and housing programme look like?

Firstly, the rights of citizens living with insecure tenure, inadequate shelter and at risk need to be recognised. This goes beyond constitutional rights but manifests the manner in which local government conducts its business with citizens. The recognition needs to permeate the thinking that the ‘poor are not a problem to solve’ but agents of change that can fundamentally drive a citizen led land and housing programme. Finally, that well organised groups, community-based organisations, street committees need to become an integral partner with local government.

Secondly, there would be new and flexible regulations that are not based on ‘all or nothing approach’. Investing large resources for releasing land on the periphery for a few subsidised houses, isn’t appropriate for the diversity of needs. This means rethinking the finance programmes that underpin the current housing subsidy. At the moment, the form of housing (single dwelling, single household and single title) follows the function of the housing subsidy. What we need is greater flexibility that enables people to make choices and allows citizens to build incrementally on land. This also means that local government should not be developing any programme that just speaks to basic services, toilets, taps etc. as a short-term ‘keep the community happy’ bandage, without giving a clear direction of how the tenure, land and housing issue will be ultimately resolved.

Thirdly, given that it takes approximately eleven years to upgrade a settlement, changing the current practice of compliance and ‘dotting each I and crossing each T’ has to change.  In order to address this, we need a programme that is ruthlessly expedient. A comprehensive citywide approach should be adopted so that no informal settlement or backyard is left in uncertainty about their trajectory towards development. Practically, this also means consolidating various legislation from land use management, environmental impact assessments, heritage studies, water use licences etc. to become more robust in releasing land for development.

Fourthly, clearly acknowledging that land serves a much deeper social function. In order to realise this, tenure security has to be at the heart. Whilst this debate is not new, innovation in thinking about ownership and communal land in urban areas could be an avenue to unlock citizen’s agency to build at scale. International precedents in the global south have demonstrated that igniting and enabling community ownership of land, leads to dramatic investment from citizens and communities. Supporting citizen agency and collective action has to be the drive towards rethinking land ownership and tenure.

Finally, acknowledging that citizens and communities have built shelters for centuries means creating an enabling environment for citizens to leverage finance. A rethinking of the Peoples’ Housing Process will go a long way for citizens, households and communities to build at scale. Over the last 22 years, the four million housing opportunities provided by the government have mostly benefitted large-scale construction and development companies. If we need diversity, citizens need to build through a local emerging construction sector, rather than a top-down decision that tells citizens ‘what they need and who must build’.At the Development Action Group, we are convinced that decisive action and political will is needed to address the scale of the problem. This is by no stretch a comprehensive analysis but emphasises the need to rethink our approach to the precarious nature of urban land and housing. We are also convinced that we can only realise a different end by unleashing citizen agency.

Unless we do this, we will continue to feed a system that will neither have enough resources nor capacity to deliver at scale. In fact, one would argue that if lack of progress in land distribution is the motivation to amend Section 25 of the constitution, then a similar logic should apply to Section 26. And perhaps reflect the current reality that ‘Citizens should take (and are taking) all reasonable measures to house themselves within the available resources.’ Let us move the locus of power to the citizens, and the government will watch how quickly the housing crisis will be resolved.

Aditya Kumar is the Executive Director of DAG. Over the last fifteen years, he has worked on post disaster, post conflict and informal settlement upgrading across the world. Helen Macgregor Rourke is a Programme Manager at the Development Action Group.  

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