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On the first weekend of the lockdown, human settlements minister Lindiwe Sisulu announced a programme of “de-densification” of informal settlements to enable anti-Covid-19 social distancing. By de-densification she means relocation of at least some residents to other areas. She pitched this as if it would be a reluctant imposition on people living in informal settlements, a service to “assist them to de-densify the areas”.

This is notable not because it is radical, but because it is ordinary: government housing policy has been some variation of “de-densification” for 120 years. Johannesburg’s first forced removals were conducted in the name of disease control. In terms of urban planning, apartheid was largely just US-style suburbanisation with the racism dialled up to 11. It created low-density settlements in good locations for white people, and in progressively far-flung locations for Indian, coloured and black people...

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