Urban Land Reform for Social and Spatial Justice
Mercy Brown-Luthango | Amandla 64 | June, 2019
South Africa is now more than 60% urbanised and the urban population is projected to grow to more than 70% by 2030. This is in the context of rapid urbanisation in Africa: Africa is the fastest urbanising region in the world. According to UN Habitat, State of African Cities, over a quarter of the 100 fastest growing cities in the world are in Africa.
Urbanisation provides significant opportunities for economic growth as well as access to employment and other opportunities for urban residents. But at the same time, if it is not managed properly, it brings with it enormous challenges. The brunt of these are borne by the urban poor. This is what is commonly referred to as the “urban dilemma”.
City governments are at the coalface of responding to the myriad of urban development imperatives, as well as meeting the needs of all urban residents. Given the speed at which urbanisation is occurring in South Africa, these governments face several challenges. Some of these include:
- providing infrastructure and services to a growing number of households, whilst also clearing service backlogs and maintaining existing infrastructure;
- restructuring the urban spatial form in order to improve urban efficiency and encourage more sustainable use of land and other resources; and
- achieving social integration and inclusion of marginalised groups and improving the health and well-being of households, by bringing them closer to employment opportunities and services.
Service delivery protests
Local governments struggle to provide quality urban services like housing, water, sanitation and social facilities in a manner and at a speed which respond to the needs of all citizens. This is at the heart of service delivery protests, which have seen a sharp increase in recent years. Municipal IQ is a web-based data and intelligence service specialising in the monitoring and assessment of South Africa’s municipalities. In 2018, it recorded 237 service delivery protests. This was an increase of 24% from 2014, which was a general election year. In that year the country experienced the second highest levels of service delivery protests for the period 2005-2018. Moreover, this research found that the majority of such protests occur in informal settlements in metros like Cape Town and Ekurhuleni.
Land, and the transformation of inequitable, exclusionary and unsustainable land use management practices, are essential to dealing with the challenges facing South African cities. These challenges are complex and can often seem intractable. However, there are a number of tools at the disposal of local governments to begin to address some of the challenges.
Expropriate urban land
To start with, Chapter 2, Section 25 of the Constitution holds that property can be expropriated “for a public purpose or in the public interest”. It mentions land reform and equitable access to natural resources as issues of public interest. Similarly, the Spatial Planning and Land Use Management Act (SPLUMA) of 2013 aims to promote “spatial justice”, social and economic inclusion and a more equitable distribution of land by ensuring “more access to and use of land” for those previously denied these rights.
One of these inequitable land use practices is the retention of privately-owned vacant land for speculative purposes. Local governments have the power and legislative tools to deal with it. Speculation drives up the price of land as it withholds it from the market. Vacant parcels of land often become hot spots for crime and violence and therefore impose other social costs. There is an opportunity within the Property Rates Act (2004) for municipalities to impose a higher rate on vacant land, in order to discourage speculative holding of land.
The current debate around expropriation in South Africa is usually centred on rural land reform. Yet there is an opportunity to think critically about how this tool can be used in the urban context, to ensure that unused, unproductive vacant land in cities can be expropriated for the provision of housing and other services to the urban poor.
This tool could be used in combination with supportive land use regulations like zoning to allow higher densities and facilitate subdivision of existing plots. It could also be used to facilitate densification through infill development of well-located parcels of land in the city. (“Infill development” refers to the development of vacant or under-used parcels of land within existing urban areas that are already largely developed). Development charges collected from developers should be used to fund additional infrastructure requirements for higher density developments.
Expropriation of land for upgrading of informal settlements located on private land is yet another way in which this tool can be creatively applied in the urban context. In terms of the law, municipalities are not allowed to provide services and infrastructure to informal settlements located on private land. In this case, expropriation becomes a tool open to municipalities to ensure that vacant land which is not being used productively can be made available for the provision of decent quality housing and infrastructure to residents of informal settlements.
Use publicly-owned land
In addition, local governments should use publicly owned land strategically for the provision of affordable housing, particularly in suitably located areas, close to employment opportunities and services. A case in point is the Wingfield land which is located along the Voortrekker Road Corridor Integration Zone (VRCIZ). This is one of the strategic corridors identified by the City of Cape Town to facilitate spatial transformation and inclusion in Cape Town. This land could possibly unlock a significant number of affordable housing opportunities for residents living in precarious conditions in informal settlements and backyards in neighbouring Factreton, Kensington and Maitland.
Expropriate vacant buildings
Vacant, unused buildings, specifically those in close proximity to transport interchanges, where owners have absconded and are not paying property taxes, should be expropriated and redeveloped for mixed use, affordable housing. Re-development of existing unused buildings is an important option to consider, especially in light of the fact that construction costs constitute the bulk (45%) of development costs.
Develop inner cities
The implementation of social housing policy in South African cities is another example of the failure of government to use existing policies and legislation at their disposal in a creative manner to spatially and socially transform South African cities. A report by the Housing Development Agency (2013) shows that the majority of social housing projects are developed on the periphery, where the price of land is cheaper. This goes against the spirit of the policy which requires social housing projects to be located in restructuring zones (restructuring zones are geographical areas identified for targeted investment from the state, based on the need for social, spatial and economic restructuring).
Restructuring zones are supposed to align with Urban Development Zones (UDZs). Developers who have projects in these zones are eligible for UDZ tax rebates. The UDZs are a potential negotiating tool which can be used by municipalities to exact certain benefits from developers; for example the inclusion of a certain percentage of affordable units in all new developments.
The UDZ is a tax incentive administered by the South African Revenue Service (SARS). It is aimed at facilitating urban regeneration by encouraging private sector-led residential and commercial development in inner city areas with existing public transport infrastructure. The fact that social housing projects are located on the periphery and not in restructuring zones means that municipalities are not able to capitalise on instruments like the UDZ. Instead UDZs have had the unintended consequence, in some instances, of facilitating gentrification.
It is often said that South Africa has one of the most progressive constitutions and the most well-developed policies in the world. Maybe what is needed is not endless debates about new policies or new legislation, but rather a much-needed dose of political will, creativity and courage. The Department of Cooperative Governance, in its policy framework document “Integrated Urban Development Framework’, uses the term “urban dividend” to describe “an optimal situation where the increasing concentration of an economically active population translates into higher levels of economic activity, greater productivity and higher rates of growth”. We must use what we already have to intervene in the land and property market in order to realise socio-spatial transformation in South African cities and ensure that everyone, especially poor residents, benefit from this urban dividend.
Mercy Brown-Luthango is a senior researcher at the African Centre for Cities, University of Cape Town. This article was written in her personal capacity