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.

As movement controls collapsed over the course of the 1980s and transport subsidies were withdrawn (making far-flung settlements impossible to commute from), people moved as close to city centres as they could in search of work. That directly led to the greatest sites of residential density in SA; in inner cities such as Hillbrow (which are extremely desirable for their proximity to economic opportunity) and largely peripheral informal settlements — accommodation that is in demand more or less in proportion to its proximity to urban centres.

I use these words deliberately; “desirable”, and “in demand”. People typically do not live in extremely dense conditions if they have an economically viable alternative. The alternatives are too far from work or the possibility of work. Density in inner cities and informal settlements is the housing market at work.

Diepsloot residents go about their business. Picture: THE TIMES
Diepsloot residents go about their business. Picture: THE TIMES

Post-apartheid housing policy has continued to focus on de-densification. Its great failure has been its overwhelming focus — with few exceptions — on building free-standing houses at suburban densities on cheap, uninhabited land. Where is land cheap and uninhabited? Where no-one wants to live, because it’s too far or poorly connected to cities. We’ve tried de-densification, and it just produces economically stagnant dormitory settlements.

That’s all well and good, you might say, but now is not the time for good housing, urban, or spatial policy. Coronavirus is here; density means people are stuck in close quarters, and we need to act now to create hygienic conditions. That means moving people to spread them out. But this is making the same mistake our housing policy does — blaming density for problems that are in fact caused by bad urban planning, lack of basic services, and poor urban management.

Furthermore, de-densification promises to add problems of its own. Our cities are already financially unsustainable, largely due to the immense cost of servicing low densities. Cities can be incredibly resource-efficient because bringing people closer together reduces the cost of servicing them. Density is efficiency.

Suburbs are less efficient than urban centres because you have fewer people per metre of bulk infrastructure, and by the time you get to distant low-density areas (I’m looking at you, golf estates) their payments for services don’t cover the cost of providing them.

This applies too to health — Namakwa district municipality in the Northern Cape has a density of about one person per km² (Johannesburg is about 2,500 people per km² and Hillbrow about 50,000 per km²). Imagine what it takes to service the Namakwa municipal area with ambulances, or adequate coverage by doctors and nurses.

The answer to our bad approach to housing and density is no great leap — in fact, we’ve already adopted better policy. In 2004 the department of human settlements unveiled Breaking New Ground, a new approach to housing policy that was stuffed full of good ideas, most of which have seen little use since.

One of those ideas is “in situ upgrading”. At its simplest, this means that instead of the slow, expensive and often unjust process of removing people from informal settlements to RDP houses, you run basic services, especially electricity, water, and sewerage to where the people already are, far more quickly and cheaply.

Another is the “people’s housing process” (in fact, a much older idea, but which Breaking New Ground suggests be expanded). This excellently named programme provided land, building materials and construction assistance directly to housing beneficiaries and resulted in houses built more cheaply and to higher quality standards than developer-built RDP houses.

What’s this got to do with Covid-19? Both housing poverty and the pandemic require a policy response that’s more pragmatic, more accommodating to the actual lives of the people intended to benefit. People need basic services, both to stay inside for three weeks and to live the rest of their lives: at the barest minimum, water, electricity, sewerage and refuse collection. Service people where they stand, both because it’s quicker and cheaper than the alternative and because it addresses the actual problems you’re aiming to solve: the spread of a deadly virus. Give them the materials, the assistance, and — crucially — the tenure on their land to improve their own living conditions.

And then, when we are again able to think about the day-to-day of government and policy, focus house building on densifying the best-located land. That might mean highrises, but if Johannesburg could just achieve similar densities to Paris or central London on average — three- or four-storey terraces and apartments — then it could fit its whole population in it and more. No informal settlements needed.

• Harber, a political economist, is a researcher at the Gauteng City-Region Observatory. He writes in his personal capacity.

Would you like to comment on this article or view other readers' comments?
Register (it’s quick and free) or sign in now.

Speech Bubbles

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.