30 October 2023 Photo Bobby Shabangu
The aftermath of damage to a building in Johannesburg, after burning.
A recent fire that engulfed a downtown Johannesburg building illustrates the challenge of housing a bulging urban population in safe, dignified conditions.

Opinion article by Prof Ivan Turok, Chuma Giyose, Claudia Hitzeroth, Zama Mgwatyu and Andreas Scheba

The tragic loss of 78 lives when fire engulfed a downtown Johannesburg building illustrates the challenge of housing a bulging urban population in safe, dignified conditions.

While the apartheid government resisted urbanisation and refused to build liveable neighbourhoods for black people, the ANC government and metropolitan authorities have been ambivalent, fearing that cities would be overwhelmed.

The ‘RDP’ mass housing programme has constructed about three million small units in peripheral dormitory settlements, far from jobs and amenities. A formulaic ‘one house, one plot’ approach has produced sprawl with sparse facilities. The scheme is currently being cut back and replaced by serviced sites rather than free homes. This is bound to perpetuate urban fragmentation, instead of helping to densify and integrate cities.

More dynamic and adaptable way

Meanwhile, a more dynamic and adaptable way of providing affordable urban housing has emerged from the grassroots, beyond the formal housing system. Many poor households, small building contractors, and emerging developers are responding to the massive demand for low-cost accommodation by investing whatever resources they can muster to construct rental units in their backyards. They are countering unemployment and hardship with laudable energy, initiative, and self-reliance.

Their dwellings range in quality from simple wooden and zinc structures to solid brick-and-mortar two-storey flats with internal ablutions. Standards are improving over time as tenants demand better accommodation and builder-developers learn to design superior homes.

Small-scale rental housing (SSRH) is also stimulating township economies by raising household incomes and creating local jobs across the construction value chain via the supply of building materials, repairs and maintenance, and rental agents and other property services. It is providing a valuable shot in the arm for a struggling building industry.

These positive features and their multiplier effects make SSRH the fastest growing segment of the housing market in the country. An organic process of transforming underused land into more valuable property is being replicated over and over again across cities and towns, driven by the insatiable demand for affordable accommodation. The momentum is fuelled by the emergence of novel lending institutions, such as the Trust for Urban Housing Finance.

Yet, the very success of this phenomenon creates other challenges, including overloaded infrastructure, stretched public services, and degraded open spaces through population growth and crowding.

Dangers of SSRH

Most emerging developers and contractors are unaware of the formal rules and systems that regulate house building and urban development. The informal and unauthorised nature of SSRH poses dangers for resident communities and risks for the developers themselves.

The health and safety of tenants occupying substandard dwellings can be compromised through fires and structural failures. And the developers might never recover the value of their investments if they remain informal.

Research has shown that the costs of regulatory compliance faced by builder-developers are prohibitive. Following the formal approval procedures and paying the requisite professional fees and administrative charges would more than double the cost of developing rental units because of their onerous nature. Most developers either do not apply for permission to build — or they give up out of frustration halfway through this time-consuming process.

Despite the immense opportunities and looming threats facing SSRH, the sector is almost completely ignored by national, provincial, and municipal authorities. The tenants seem invisible to decision-makers because at least they have a roof over their heads and appear better off than people occupying informal settlements.

Finding creative ways to help upgrade and regularise backyard housing means navigating a legal and regulatory minefield that just seems too complicated to public officials, who do not know where to start.

Responding to the policy vacuum

Several grassroots intermediary organisations have begun to respond to the policy vacuum by providing practical support to builder-developers and advice to the government about what actions and reforms are most urgent and important. NGOs are rolling up their sleeves and offering direct assistance and advocacy on behalf of the sector. They believe that empowered citizens should drive local development, so they support small-scale operators looking to construct decent, affordable accommodation.

Some of these organisations have set up training courses and mentoring programmes to help nascent contractors and developers to improve their knowledge and capabilities. Hands-on technical advice and expertise are also offered to individual developers to package their project proposals professionally to help secure external funding.

NGOs have learnt from direct experience that a broad spectrum of builder-developers are engaged in township housing. The support they offer needs to be carefully tailored according to the distinctive needs and potential of different enterprises.

At one end are ‘homeowner developers’, who build in a piecemeal, intuitive, and incremental way according to whatever resources they can secure from personal savings and networks. Women are well represented among this group. They aspire to make better use of their backyards to supplement their household income and create a durable asset for future security.  


At the other end of the spectrum are ‘micro-developers’ who are more proficient and strategic. They have more extensive, specialist networks and can raise longer-term loans to fund their projects. These entrepreneurs usually build larger blocks of between six and twelve units on each plot and operate across multiple sites.

Township developers do not tend to work together closely because of natural rivalry. The spirit of independence has limited their collective voice to engage with public authorities and financial institutions. Consequently, NGOs encourage developers to organise themselves and build trust so that they can learn from each other and speak with one voice about urgent regulatory reforms.

Township developer forums have been created in some places to raise their visibility and negotiating power. These bottom-up initiatives are making a meaningful contribution to reducing the affordable housing backlog and deserve to be taken seriously.

SSRH fosters urban density, enhances livelihoods, and is more sustainable financially than free government housing. The benefits extend beyond shelter to bolster township economies through new and dynamic enterprises, construction jobs, and skills.

The rich experience that NGOs have gained from working in close proximity to everyday realities provides valuable insight into how to scale up and strengthen the SSRH phenomenon. This know-how is unique and different from the mindsets and understanding available to policy makers operating at national or even municipal levels. It is vital that local and national authorities recognise and respect such hard-earned expertise.  

Novel social arrangement

Yet, initiatives from below cannot succeed without wider state support. To achieve its full potential, SSRH needs public investment in essential infrastructure and services, including clean water, sanitation, electricity, and waste collection.

The government also needs to simplify the procedures that regulate house building for emerging developers to obtain the legal compliance that will help to raise long-term finance, building insurance and protect the value of their investments when they decide to sell.

One way forward in a context of mistrust between municipalities, developers, and residents is to negotiate a novel social arrangement that will restore mutual obligations and stability. A ‘new deal for communities’ could vary in detail between different places, depending on local circumstances.

Municipalities could commit to improving the infrastructure and streamlining building approvals, in return for developers contributing to the cost of public services by paying property taxes and service charges. NGOs could play a valuable role in communicating and negotiating such arrangements at neighbourhood level.

  • Prof Ivan Turok, NRF Research Chair – University of the Free State, Distinguished Research Fellow – Human Sciences Research Council, Cape Town, ITurok@hsrc.ac.za
  • Chuma Giyose, Project Co-ordinator, Development Action Group, Cape Town, chuma@dag.org.za
  • Claudia Hitzeroth, Project Officer, Development Action Group, Cape Town, claudia@dag.org.za
  • Zama Mgwatyu, Programme Manager, Development Action Group, Cape Town, zama@dag.org.za
  • Dr Andreas Scheba, Senior Researcher, Human Sciences Research Council, Cape Town, and Senior Lecturer, University of the Free State, Bloemfontein, ascheba@hsrc.ac.za

This article was originally published in the Mail & Guardian


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