MICHAEL MORRIS: ANC’s fanciful housing plan failed to become concrete - Business Day

Just a few months after the 10th anniversary of SA’s inaugural democratic election, the government announced a plan to eradicate informal settlements within a decade.

Michael Morris
Just a few months after the 10th anniversary of SA’s inaugural democratic election, the government announced a plan to eradicate informal settlements within a decade.

I don’t remember this announcement at all — I am indebted to senior colleague Rhona le Roux for drawing attention to newspaper clippings on the subject, originally assembled by the late John Kane-Berman.

The clippings date from late 2004. The headlines seem almost to belong to another country: “Expiry date for squatter camps is 2014 — Sisulu”; “Shacks: gone in 10 years?” ; “Informal settlements are on the way out”, and “No more informal settlements”.

We barely need to know the details to be certain that even then few would have given anything but an extremely capable state any chance pulling off such a rapid upgrading of ragged, unplanned settlements, while simultaneously building houses to match accelerating urbanisation.

One of the clippings cites then Johannesburg mayor Amos Masondo’s surely breathtaking vow that the city would “not have a single shack within its metropolitan boundary” within three years. 

Still, the sheer confidence of these ideas reflects what today seems an enviably optimistic atmosphere in which combining wherewithal and political will to achieve remarkable things might well have seemed possible. 

Make no mistake, there were significant gains. According to the Institute of Race Relations’ SA Survey, from 1996 to 2021 the number of formal houses in SA increased from 5.7-million to 15-million, with home ownership growing between 2007 and 2021 from 10.3-million (7-million owned by black South Africans) to 11.5-million (9.7-million). Sharp rises in access to services between 1996 and 2021 included piped water (120.2% increase), flush or chemical lavatories (156.8%), electricity for lighting (222.1%), and refuse removal (127.7%). 

Other data is more sobering though — such as on the primary income sources for households, the sum of which grew from 14.3-million to 17.9-million in 2010-21. Salaries/wages were the main income source for 8.9-million households in 2010, rising to 10,6-million in 2021; over the same period, households depending on grants rose from 6.2-million to 9.1-million.

National Development Plan (NDP) figures emphasise the trajectory of decline. The 2030 targets set in 2012 for unemployment and GDP growth were 6% and 5.4%. Instead, we have gone backwards: in 2012 GDP growth was 3.3% and it is now 1.1%, while the unemployment rate, 25.4% in 2012, is 32.9% today.

We may surmise that SA in 2004 wasn’t really “another country” at all, but in key essentials was little different from the one we still live in. Chiefly, what remains the same is the continuing cost of our policymakers’ conception of the role, and the reach, of the state. 

The enduring problem — now, as in 2004 — remains that, for example, substandard living conditions are perceived as an insufficiency of urban design, or housing, neither of which ever was, nor is, capable of significantly addressing poverty. Living standards, and the economic mobility they are tied to, are almost wholly a function of national economic strategies.

What these might be are crisply summed up in Business Day’s recent editorial opinion on the “string of laudable plans to fix the economy” spawned by the NDP (“SA needs political will, not another plan”, September 29). “What’s missing is a state capable and willing to do its part, and a governing party that can agree on and support the growth-boosting, private sector enabling reforms that are urgently needed.” 

Instead, hardly a week goes by without yet another policy-related headline as fanciful as those of 2004. 

Morris is head of media at the SA Institute of Race Relations.