Property & Wealth

Urban slums – drivers of violent unrest or of development?

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We are often appalled and shocked by seemingly mindless violence, vandalism and destruction of public and private property erupting in urban protests. These protests are more often than not linked to housing conditions.

Do the urban slums or informal settlements just constitute a breeding ground for social, political and economic ills or is there another, too often missed, side to this coin?

Let’s first try to come to grips with what underlies the regular occurrence of violent protests generally ascribed to a lack of service delivery.

The unrest usually relates to some aspect of the inequality gap, which is really most visible when it comes to the matter of housing, especially in city environments with their stark contrasts between the informal settlements and established suburbs.

You just have to compare the shocking contrasts between the upper and middle class homes in the leafy suburbs with those found densely packed in informal settlements.

Imagine the impact on the psyche of a domestic worker, who on a daily basis is confronted with the contrast between the 1 000 m2 (under roof) homestead of the, say, dentist and his family of four, and the 15 m2 shack, where she lives with her family of seven.

Julius Malema zoomed in on this in a packed Soweto Stadium during the launch of the Economic Freedom Fighters’ (EFF) municipal election manifesto – illustrating how the situation creates a platform for radical populist politics.

And remember that for actual delivery of housing, in the perception of the majority of citizens the approximately 630 municipalities in the country are the responsible institutions.

The councillors on the ground are in the direct line of fire and they are entirely ill-equipped and under-resourced to deal with the mass hysteria that is becoming an almost daily phenomenon somewhere in the land.

Fact is that, in a recent written reply to a question in parliament, the Minister of Human Settlements, Lindiwe Sisulu, revealed that South Africa’s eight metropolitan councils, to which most people are migrating, are themselves unable to cope with the surging demand for houses. They have collectively managed to hand over only 28 232 title deeds to beneficiaries between the years 2013 to 2015!

Long-term problem

It is clear that this challenge with its inherently disruptive effect is due to be with us for some time to come. For instance, according to data supplied by Statistics SA, an average of 18% of households (nearly one in five) in the urban metros live in informal dwellings.

And if you consider that percentage against the national estimate of some 2 600 informal settlements housing approximately five million people, one begins to get an idea of the massive housing challenges confronting local government in South Africa.

At the strategic level the Department of Human Settlements has acknowledged that the current housing backlog of over two million units, poor administrative competencies and the wide-reaching prevalence of the abuse of and corruption in the housing allocation system is simply compounding the frustrations of the people.  

International trends

For proper perspective it is, however, also important to realise that the process of rapid urbanisation and the resultant informal and slum development is a worldwide phenomenon.

According to a recent article on The Conversation website the world’s informal settlements are growing at an unprecedented rate, with about one in four urban dwellers living in slums.

In the article Paul Jones, associate professor, Urban & Regional Planning, at the University of Sydney in reference to Luar Batang, one of Jakarta’s oldest waterfront squatter areas, which is being flattened, writes: “The Luar Batang story is not exclusive to Jakarta. In many cities in the Asia-Pacific and developing countries, informal or unplanned settlements continue to grow and are seen as a blight on city development.

“These ‘parasites’ of the city are on land that the formal planning system deemed unsuitable for development. Yet state and private developers now see them as a relatively easy land gain to reap higher financial returns.

“Rather than engage in strategies to upgrade settlements, some policymakers want them ‘out of sight, out of mind’. The settlements’ structure, people and image do not conform to middle-class and private developer views.”

And, he concludes: “While the urban middle class has grown and good gains have been made in reducing urban disparities, including poverty, (as has happened in South Africa too over the past 22 years) basic human rights remain elusive for people in such settlements.”

Other side of the coin

In another recent article in Business Day Live, under the heading “Implementation of reforms will ensure growth and jobs”, Ann Bernstein of the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE), writes: “SA’s future is urban. Policies, power and resources must now realise this. The economic potential of SA’s cities must be central to the new growth strategy.”

She also emphasises the importance of skills development, saying it is vital at every point in the growth agenda.

In this regard an interesting perspective of the contribution that could come from informal urban settlements and slums emerges from another recent article in The Conversation under the heading “Gifted children in Africa’s urban slums are a precious and untapped resource”.

Steve Humble of the Newcastle University writes: ”We all know that it doesn’t matter whether you’re rich or poor. You can still be gifted. Opportunity is the key.”

He relates how research in poor areas of sub-Saharan Africa’s cities has revealed how gifted children in these areas, when identified and given the opportunity and additional support, could become catalysts of social change through influencing their peers and communities.

“This is why human capital is key to a nation’s success. For Nobel Laureate Gary Becker the modern era is the “age of human capital”. For Eric Hanushek and Ludger Woessman, school policy can, if effective in raising cognitive skills, be an important force in economic development, Humble writes.

He, however, also reveals how the poor in these areas become stigmatised and their self-worth undermined by their circumstances. He relates how one father reacted when told his daughter had performed really well in all the tasks. He “shook his head in disbelief and said: ‘She can’t be gifted. We are poor. Only the rich are gifted.’

“Too few development experts believe that part of the solution to poverty can come from the poor themselves. Yet in the slums of Dar es Salaam children of high ability wait to be discovered, their contribution to economic growth and development wasted because no-one believes they are there,” he writes.

He also argues that some funding should go towards “those children who can be identified as life changers with the tenacity, determination and ability to make a difference for their own countries.”

It is important that both government and the private sector recognise that informal settlements and slums are an important resource for development, rather than just a burden to be endured.

by Eve van Basten

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