Durban, South Africa

by Colin Marx and Sarah Charlton


Durban’s current pattern of informal settlement is largely a product of apartheid factors during the second half of the 20th century. The 1913 Land Act alienated Africans from most of the land, forcing them wholesale into wage employment for survival. During the 1930s, massive informal settlements formed just beyond the urban fringes. In addition, the creation, during the 1960s and 1970s, of ‘independent states’ adjacent to city boundaries, and including formal African residential areas, further spurred the growth of informal settlements along the urban edge. Informal settlements grew as a result of a lack of housing alternatives, as well as the devastating drought of the late 1970s and early 1980s, which forced people to seek livelihoods in urban areas.

Newer settlements that emerged during the late 1980s and early 1990s have tended to be smaller, and more clandestine land invasions closer to the city centre – often within former Asian residential areas or on marginal land at risk from floods or landslides. In many cases, these newer settlements were developed by households who fled political violence.

Recent estimates have suggested that approximately 35 per cent of informal structures are located within pockets of formal settlements; 55 per cent are located on the periphery of formal settlements; and 10 per cent are periurban in location.

Slums are defined as erstwhile formal settlements that have degenerated to such an extent that there exists a need to rehabilitate them to acceptable levels. While there is no clear definitive statement of what an ‘informal settlement’ is, factors taken into consideration when ‘classifying’ an area as such comprise an evaluation of the nature of the structure, land-ownership, tenure situation, size of structure, access to services and land-use zoning.

The predominant form of inadequate housing in the city comprises informal settlements – characterized by construction of varying degrees of permanence, with a variety of materials, including corrugated iron, plastic, timber and metal sheeting, or built with more traditional wattle and daub – that have developed on apartheid ‘buffer strips’: marginal land within established areas, or land that formerly lay beyond the city boundaries. Informal dwellings
represent about 75 per cent of the metropolitan gross housing backlog of 305,000 units. The population living in informal areas is overwhelmingly African; indeed, nearly half of the African population of the entire municipal area lives in informal dwellings. Another form of inadequate housing comprises the dilapidated and crowded hostels developed to house and control (usually) male workers.

No data is available on the tenure in slums. Security of tenure is calculated from the general association of tenure with dwelling type and geographical location in the metropolitan area. It is estimated that 75 per cent of the households in Durban live in formal areas and have full security of tenure. Of the remaining 25 per cent, approximately 20 per cent (41,000 households) have a level of security of tenure derived from tribal land allocation systems; the rest (150,000 to 195,000 households) have little or no security of tenure. All informal dwellings that were in existence in Durban in 1996 were granted some status and security from arbitrary eviction by the local authority. The municipality resists new settlements, and attempts are made, with varying degrees of success, to keep vacant land free from occupation.

The 33 per cent of Durban’s population who live in informal areas are overwhelmingly African. 44 per cent are male, 56 per cent female and 27.9 per cent of the households are female-headed. Informal settlements tend to be popularly regarded as incubators of vice and disease, harbouring ‘those too lazy to work’ and groups regarded as the ‘undeserving poor’. The violence that erupted during 1984 in the slums was, in part, a struggle for the control of land, largely linked to the national struggle for democracy.

Between 1986 and 1992, 3228 people died of politicized urban violence in Durban; increasingly, these deaths occurred in informal settlements.

The city has expanded its boundaries a number of times, largely driven by the regulatory impetus to gain control of burgeoning informal settlements that abut its borders and to protect and secure the economic privileges of the white population. Since 1996, there has been a dramatic transformation of local government focusing on issues of equity, including integrated development planning based on local-level community participation to develop a framework for better governance. The Long-Term Development Framework focuses on a development vision for the next 20 years; the Integrated Development Planning Process seeks to achieve better coordination; and the organizational transformation process of the council seeks to better reflect its development and democratic priorities. These initiatives, however, are still at an embryonic stage.

Critical reflection on housing, urban development and other policies reveals a failure to adequately address the spatial and socio-economic legacies of the past, and highlights the absence of policies that specifically deal with the issues they raise. Given lower-than-anticipated housing delivery rates and rapid population growth, a significant housing backlog remains the issue of the future. This is partly because responsibilities for implementation lie across different tiers of government, and partly because of the complexities associated with achieving coordinated public policy. Sectoral public policies that are pro-poor have far less impact when they are not implemented in a coordinated manner.

This summary has been extracted from:

UN-Habitat (2003) Global Report on Human Settlements 2003, The Challenge of Slums, Earthscan, London; Part IV: 'Summary of City Case Studies', pp195-228.

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2003 Development Planning Unit | Anna Soave | Khanh Tran-Thanh