YONELA DIKO: SA’s human settlements: 26 years of achievements and hindrances


The South African story of the last 26 years opened with the country's account crippled by human displacement, marginalisation, inadequate shelter, tenure and asset insecurity, spatial fragmentation and relatively no access to real economic opportunities for most South Africans.

The singular task of the Department of Housing and Human Settlements over the last 26 years has been to make a complete break from this ugly past, through developing transformative policies and programmes that will achieve a critical mass impact on the economic lives of the previously disadvantaged through housing development.

The vision was to ensure that through housing infrastructure, the previously economically excluded communities can be provided with tangible assets, enhancing their livelihood opportunities, providing a pathway to participating in a market economy more favourably while squarely addressing poverty and homelessness.

Effectively, the aim was the twin task of ensuring people are fully housed on one hand, and are also given an economic tool through which they can participate meaningfully in the marketplace on the other hand.

After cumulative experiences over the years, it was clear that the provision of houses could not be done in isolation, it needed to be part of an integrated programme of redrawing entire communities and pooling other human living needs like water, sanitation, jobs and life conveniences. As a result, over the years, the provision of human settlements was an attempt at integration of services that respond comprehensively to human needs, a more evolved service provision, ensuring people are located closer to efficient public transport, locating jobs near where people live, with spatial norms and standards having been developed, along with the upgrading of informal settlements in the period where formal houses remain inadequate.

Twenty six years later, there have been many achievements. Equally, and expectedly, there have been many hindrances in the effort to fight these inherited multipronged evils whose intent was to subjugate people into a life that could never justify their skills, rights and aspirations.


According to the Department of Human Settlements’ 25-year review, in 1994 the estimated housing shortage was about 2.2 million. There were about 300 informal settlements.

The 1996 Census said that 65% of households occupied formal houses, flats, or rooms; and 18% occupied traditional dwellings, and another 17% lived in shacks (StatsSA, 1997). It further stated that just over half the population, at 54%, lived in urban areas at the time of the census.

Even then, the most urbanised province was Gauteng, at 97%, and Limpopo was the least urbanised, with only 11% of its population in urban areas. Furthermore, in 1996, there were 9 million households, as compared to 11.2 million in 2001.

Fifteen years later, in 2011, Statistics South Africa indicated that the country had 14.5 million households wherein 11.2 million resided in adequate housing, 1.2 million in informal settlements, 713,000 in backyard shacks and 1.1 million in traditional ‘mud’ dwellings (StatsSA, 2011). Not surprising, but curious, was the fact that the highest percentage of households who lived in formal dwellings were observed in Limpopo (91.7%), Mpumalanga (86.9%), and Northern Cape (86%). Approximately one-fifth of households lived in informal dwellings in Gauteng (19.8%), which is a highly concentrated area. Traditional dwellings were most common in Eastern Cape (22.3%) and KwaZulu-Natal (14.4%).


According to Oscar van Heerden, an international relations scholar and fellow of the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflections (MISTRA), the ANC government inherited an apartheid debt to the tune of US$23 billion.

As Nelson Mandela stated in his book, this debt was largely to local private companies and parastatals, so it was not possible to make the same attempts Mandela did with international debt, when he met world leaders asking for debt cancellation. This meant that from the outset, the ANC government operated within a context of resource constraints and low tax revenues, which impacted its high-minded aspiration of redrawing the state into a fairer and more equal society as per the Freedom Charter.

The second challenge, foreseeable but hard to measure, was the scale and rapidity of urban migration, from rural communities into very few and concentrated urban areas. According to the World Bank some 26% of South Africans have moved from rural areas to urban areas over the last 25 years.

After the abolishment of the racist Group Areas Acts and Black Communities Acts, a quarter of the South African population literally moved largely to cities like Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban. Because of the scale and rapidity of this move, it was impossible for the government to ensure that everyone who moved into these urban centres had decent shelter waiting for them and this resulted in the explosion of informal settlements on the edges of urban centres, from 300 in 1994, to 25,00 in 2019, creating a new set of challenges and human settlements dangers.

The third challenge, a gift and a complexity that needed new tactics, was the evolving demographic dividend, a society becoming more urbane with elevated demands, a society becoming younger, but with the enduring legacy of black prejudice. This evolving demographic viewed the world differently from their parents and wanted a different living arrangement different to that of their forebears, and a different partnership with the state.

On top of these challenges, over the years, the state itself become mired by a plethora of internal challenges, corruption, programmes conceived but not implemented, lack of information and transparency, and ultimately a slowing down of housing development over the years. This inevitably affected society's trust that government was able to meet its promises, it affected investor confidence for partnerships with the state, and the state started losing its grip on its ability to commandeer its machinery towards its developmental goals.

The fourth problem is the ever-widening gap between policy intents and implementation of programmes. The issues of programme designs, project syndication and challenges of integrating communities have been a huge burden. This has been made difficult by institutional capacity and weaknesses and poor planning, along with even more poor monitoring of the projects that have been finally syndicated and approved.


Despite a reasonable rate of delivery, over the last 25 years, at over 200,000 units per year, up to 250,000 in some good years, the rate at which the demand for housing has been escalating, both due to population growth and urban migration, has just been exceedingly higher than could be met even by a high rate of delivery. As a result, even after some 4.7 million houses were built, the housing backlog remains at about 2.2 million.

The department has responded to this evolving population and its housing needs by setting up four main programmes:

  • the First Time Home Buyers Programme, commonly known as FLISP, which is known as the ‘’Buy your own home’’ programme, and which is meant to provide a subsidy for those first-time buyers, largely young black first-generation graduates, and middle-class professionals who have struggled to be in a position to buy a first home;

  • the Integrated Residential Development Programme is an attempt to redraw city maps and bring people together through integrated housing units;

  • the Social and Rental Housing Programmes for a specific income bracket; and

  • the informal settlements upgrading programme.

A lot of money has been pumped into these programmes and there is great and measurable success in different income brackets, although still not enough to meet the ever-growing need.

This has inevitably required an equal evolution in the funding frameworks of housing development. Due to the move from rural to urban centres of most South Africans, an Urban Settlements Development Grant (USDG) was introduced to match the normal Human Settlement Grant. A much more customised and specific grant framework needs to be developed to respond to different municipalities and provinces.

Although not perfect, the current Housing and Human Settlements programmes have ensured that through economic spinoffs, the value chain, the supply chain, every single material needed to build houses, is used to ensure broader participation of South Africans in their own upliftment. As a result, government housing development contributes some 8% of all jobs in the housing industry.

The challenges of monitoring remain one of the biggest challenges, especially in ensuring that syndicated programmes achieve their intended economic and social impact. It requires real time and accurate information provided by different agencies at regular intervals in order to know early where housing targets will not be met and what challenges need to be addressed to ensure those are met.


The current measures in place to address housing needs are clearly not adequate. Housing needs are a moving target that grows yearly. Due to a flatlined economic recovery, the resources are even more constrained and limited.

Then there are the enduring challenges of corruption, poor workmanship, delays in delivery, adding even more pressure in meeting the already runaway housing need.

A better partnership with the people is needed that will require more leveraging of the people's evolution, skills and resources so that where the government can leverage such capacity and give people measured support, then all parties can help fast track the resolution of landlessness and homelessness.

Yonela Diko is the spokesperson to the Minister of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation. He writes in his personal capacity, and can be followed on Twitter on @yonela_diko

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