BY PHILLIP HUNI
PRETORIA- To stave off the spectre of illegal land invasions currently engulfing the country, the Gauteng premier, David Makhura, has announced that as of June 2018, he will be giving away identified vacant pieces of land to the land-hungry urban dwellers who are prepared to build houses for themselves.
According to the City Press (13.05.2018), the rapid land release programme will be contingent on the political willingness of mayors to participate and work with the premier to make this a successful initiative.
To his credit, the mayor does indicate that as a province, they will be willing to bring in bulk infrastructure to ensure it does not develop into an informal settlement. It is his belief that up to 30% of all housing problems in the province can be resolved through the rapid land release initiative, provided all mayors put aside their political differences and recognise the fact that people need land, and they want it now.
While these are all noble sentiments, I, however, suggest that it should go beyond the provision of bulk infrastructure (which is often-times off-site) to include the provision basic on-site infrastructure consisting of on-site water and sewer reticulation as well as good all-weather well-drained roads (gravel wearing course).
This very basic infrastructure will be the signature that separates the Rapid Land Release Programme (RLRP) from the Informal Settlement schemes on one end and the RDP housing programme on the other end.
South Africa has a rich mix of housing programmes that take into account the different social strata and income levels, including the so-called gap-market but that discussion is beyond the scope of this article, which seeks to contribute to the discussion on the modalities of developing the most suitable housing model (s) to those who cannot afford due to their low-income levels.
I will take a step back to 2010 when I came to work in South Africa as a project manager/civil engineer for a consulting firm; having taken part in the various housing schemes in Zimbabwe back in the 1990s.
At some point between 1990 and 2000, there was a Zimbabwean government mantra of “Housing for all by the year 2000” As young graduates just out of university and working for the Ministry of Public Construction and National Housing, we would often find ourselves out of our depth (we had to hit the ground running, we were told). Very often we would be asked to start a housing project on a vacant piece of land dotting Harare with no prior planning having been taken into account. The topographical surveys, the architectural drawings and the engineering designs would then be done concurrently with the actual construction of the housing units.
Quite often, the young engineer would realise that there wasn’t enough capacity in the existing outfall sewer line to take on an additional load from a new development on the hinterland of the existing development, and by that time it was often too late; the Construction Units would have erected blocks of flats that need to be hooked in to sewer and water reticulation.
Sometimes the problem was insufficient water pressures in the existing system to cater for new developments. These are basic issues that could have been captured if proper feasibility study/preliminary design report had been prepared but the excitable political heads wanted everything “like yesterday.”
This would often result in expensive, long outfall sewers running parallel to existing ones, or the need for booster pumps to increase water pressures thus increasing the cost of off-site infrastructure substantially.
Having the local municipality approve the plans of government initiated projects of this nature were the stuff of nightmares; the City Engineers did not want to be associated with the mess that often came with poor planning, and often times political influence had to be brought to bear to approve these developments in retrospect. To me, this represented the danger of knee-jerk politically inspired housing projects that did not take into account the need for proper planning.
Wet-core and Slab housing model
However, there was one development model that fascinated me a lot and it was sponsored by USAID and administered by the government. This was a low-cost housing initiative that took into account at planning stage the availability and proximity of bulk infrastructure such as adequate water supply and sufficient water pressure and adequate bulk treatment capacity for additional sewage with the concurrence of the local municipalities.
The USAID fund would then take care of the internal water reticulation and sewer reticulation, all-weather gravel roads on site with proper drainage, proper survey pegs and a selection of pre-approved housing plans from which beneficiaries could select.
One variation of this model was what was referred to as the wet-core and slab model. This meant the development per stand included a foundation to slab level (sub-structure) and a toilet/bathroom plus one room. It would remain for the beneficiary to complete the rest of the house (top structure) at their leisure following the pre-approved plan given to them on occupancy.
The net effect of this housing model was; it was a resounding success. People can be resourceful once they have been given somewhere to start from and every time I pass through those settlements today, I marvel at the tenacity that saw most people complete the rest of their houses from the wet-core and slab at their own pace.
The beauty of the wet-core-and slab model is there is often sufficient planning that goes into the project while at the same time stretching the meagre financial resources to reach to more beneficiaries in a manner that is not possible with the much vaunted RDP Housing model.
Spreading the cake around
When I started working in SA on housing projects, I often asked my boss; why should the government built a house, complete with fittings and so forth for a relatively few lucky beneficiaries whereas it could stretch the same financial resources to cover more beneficiaries from the housing list by adopting the wet-core & slab model or any of its variations?
We would debate the merits and demerits of the RDP model or the wet-core & slab model; but one thing always came clearly to me from these discussions – the ANC could not be seen to be lowering the bar by giving its people incomplete houses whereas the apartheid government gave the lucky few beneficiaries it could, completed units. This was tantamount to political suicide; I was made to understand.
In my mind, I was often thinking it better to give everyone around the table (as far as is practicable) a smaller piece of cake than to give a few lucky ones large chunks of the scarce cake while the rest look on hungrily.
Embracing the Rapid Land Release Initiative – the political conundrum
The final question is; why may some mayors be unwilling to participate in a rapid land release initiative as raised by Premier Makhura? Is it really about them putting the parties’ ideological postures ahead of delivery? What will be delivered in this case? Is the premier planning to dish out unserviced parcels of land?
Is it a fear of the contagion that may result from the chaotic, poor planning caused by a knee-jerk reaction in response to emotion-laden land-grabs? The mayors may want to gauge the resultant political fall-out or the potential political mileage obtaining from Premier Makhura`s initiative; the more he comes up with a win-win model that does not sacrifice good technical planning while reaching out to a greater number of beneficiaries that has been to hitherto possible, the more likely he is to get all Mayors to warm up to his initiative.
South Africa would do well to ensure it comes up with proactive and bold initiatives such as the proposed Rapid Land Release Initiative to forestall the uncontrollable problem of urban squalor and arbitrary land grabs proliferating before their very eyes as was the case in Zimbabwe during Operation Murambatsvina (Operation Restore Order) during which; according to the UN report prepared in 2005 between 700,000 and 2.4 million homeless people were affected directly or indirectly.
Closer to home in SA, the more recent drama of forced removal of landless people and the razing down of their structures by the Municipality of Lusikisiki in Pondoland is one of the more colourful examples that can make Mayors pause before acceding to the Rapid Land Release Initiative without convincing themselves that they have conducted exhaustive planning and ownership issues on the land parcels that could backfire on them in a court of law.
Issues to deal with land everywhere in the World can become pear-shaped very quickly if not handled with sensitivity and care.
Phillip Huni is a keen political observer, an opinion leader, a lateral thinker and a passionate social commentator who tries to look at the World around him through an alternative prism.