An informal settlement in KwaZulu-Natal. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES/JACKIE CLAUSEN
An informal settlement in KwaZulu-Natal. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES/JACKIE CLAUSEN

Now that the ANC has passed a resolution at its conference and in Parliament that the expropriation of land without compensation is a desirable mechanism to use in land reform, should we expect mayhem and anarchy as anyone who wants grabs a piece of land?

That is what some political actors — on the right and the left — want us to believe. The right wants us to beat the drum of the swart gevaar while the left wants to claim that it is delivering on radical economic transformation by being seen at the forefront of land occupations.

Because land reform — especially through expropriation without compensation — is a process that can go awry and cause a great deal of damage to the economy, it is important to situate the latest wave of land occupations in the context of the past 25 years of urban development and settlement.

If you are poor, do not have an RDP house and live in a backyard shack or are homeless, the only way to get housing — other than wait your turn on the interminable housing list — is to occupy land and build a shack

It does appear likely that the ANC’s resolution has provided a new impetus for urban land grabs. The fact is, though, that land occupations have been a feature of South African society since before 1994, after which they accelerated enormously. In 1994, SA had about 300 informal settlements. Now, there are in excess of 2,700. These informal settlements are the product of land grabs, which are usually well planned, and have tended to target public land, where occupiers have assessed that they are less likely to be physically removed by the Red Ants.

If you are poor, do not have an RDP house and live in a backyard shack or are homeless, the only way to get housing — other than wait your turn on the interminable housing list — is to occupy land and build a shack. In Tshwane in 2017, as an example, the city says it dealt with 4,406 land invasions, before the ANC’s resolution added fuel to the fire.

While other developing countries have realised that to provide people with serviced sites and allow them to build their own houses incrementally is an affordable way to deal with housing for the poor, SA has chosen instead to build low-cost houses and has shunned "site and service". The result is much slower delivery and a great deal of corruption as people contest for scarce goods. A person can wait for decades to get a house but in the interim have no legal way to acquire a piece of land on which to build a structure.

The exception is in the Western Cape, where since 2009 it has allocated services sites to those earning less than R7,000 a month. It also plans to soon sell serviced sites to those with incomes up to R15,000. As it costs R66,000 to install services on a site, including a toilet, selling sites to this category of people, who cannot get bonds and are often heavily indebted, is a good policy option.

How then to deal with what is a chronic problem as housing budgets shrink (which they did in February’s budget) and expectations rise, as seems to be happening now? Policing and enforcing the law by removing illegal occupiers — which has been an essential component of metro and provincial strategies for the past 20 years — remains critically important.

If people illegally occupy land, they must be removed. The rule of law, when it comes to property rights, has already slipped much too far with the inner city of Johannesburg, where buildings are hijacked and stolen, a case in point.

In this context it was reassuring to hear ANC chairman Gwede Mantashe say on Tuesday, with reference to events in Hermanus, that "anarchy should not be allowed to flourish".

Enforcing the law, though, is a limited strategy. As we have seen, the pressure for housing will nonetheless continue to build in backyard shacks or in slum-lorded buildings where several families crowd into subdivided rooms of subdivided houses.

It is essential then to come up with a more practical and sensible housing policy that starts with the essence of the national debate: urban people need land. It must be provided in an orderly fashion or they will take it.

Residents of Zwelihle in Hermanus demand that their call for land and housing be heeded, otherwise they will cause havoc. The residents took to the streets on Monday March 26 2018, in a protest th...

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