Small towns are missing the chance to change apartheid’s geography

With political will, it can be done

| By and
Photo of houses and shacks
Apartheid’s spatial legacy in small towns like Plettenberg Bay (Bitou) can be changed more easily than in cities. Photo: supplied

Along the tarmac arteries that connect South Africa’s major cities are the small towns. The tin roofs of informal settlements blend into layers of government housing: standard houses that are “copied and pasted” onto the edges. Then the suburbs start. Older houses with small, well-tended gardens fade into larger, wealthier properties as the town centre approaches. On the way out of town, the pattern repeats itself in reverse. Welcome to small-town South Africa.

Attention and activism have - rightly - focused on divisions within our major cities, but the smaller towns may be the most obvious visual indictment of a housing system that has dismally failed to redress apartheid’s spatial inequality.

From a practical perspective, small towns present an easier opportunity to build models of spatial integration; greater land availability, less complex infrastructure planning and fewer vested interests than large cities. If only politics was practical!

South Africa’s housing policy - and, far more importantly implementation - has embedded apartheid spatial exclusion in smaller towns like in large cities. Other important factors include conservative planning departments, risk-adverse officials, powerful ratepayers’ associations, corruption and inefficient and under-resourced municipalities. Together these factors point to a distinct lack of political and administrative will to make changes, allowing conservative, apartheid-style planning to continue.

In small towns an opportunity has been missed to break the back of apartheid-style planning. But it is not impossible to correct this. The following practical steps would be a start:

  • Speed up land audits. All unused land (municipal and private) needs to be audited and mapped. Well-located land near or in town centres needs to be earmarked for higher density housing. The audits need to managed by provincial or national government so as to disrupt vested local interests.. A specialised team (including civil society) could be formed to manage/oversee land audits. The information must be shared publicly;
  • Disrupt ratepayers’ power: The public good of inclusive housing needs to trump the power of ratepayers (which is significant in small towns) in process and law. If housing stock is innovative and well managed, it will not drastically reduce property values;
  • Accept higher densities: Centrally located housing stock will be higher density (flats). In smaller towns, empty centrally located, buildings should be identified in the land audit and developed into social housing;
  • Use the housing waiting lists: Families offered housing opportunities must either accept this type of housing or move down the list. We cannot continue to build freestanding housing on the periphery. Drastic, disruptive measures are needed to break this pattern; and
  • Bring in new housing models: Both the municipality and housing contractors perpetuate a pattern of construction on the periphery of small towns. This comfortable, conservative pattern, entrenched over the last 25 years, must be actively disrupted. Civil society and other tiers of government must challenge municipalities and contractors to build and manage housing differently. The private sector needs to play a role in improving the quality of housing and speed up housing delivery.

Real change starts at the planning stages, drawing in participants through innovative design tools and giving a voice to marginalised communities who are often excluded from planning decisions. This also encourages the private sector to be involved and add value and capital to projects.

Housing developments should no longer be labelled as “low cost” and peripheral to existing spatial frameworks, an extension to the edge. Rather, they should be seen as part of a comprehensive spatial plan for the entire town.

Changing small-town planning is about disrupting entrenched structural power. This power is longstanding and embedded in the relationship between municipalities, wealthy ratepayers and private contractors who benefit from the present situation. External intervention is necessary from civil society, community actors or other tiers of government. Above all, transparent and clear political will is needed.

Schermbrucker is a project manager for People’s Environmental Planning ( He has six years experience working on housing, water and sanitation projects across southern Africa. Jack is a designer and social facilitator with extensive experience in informal settlement upgrading. He is currently working for PEP as a lead facilitator for the Informal Settlements Support Programme in the Bitou municipality. Views expressed are not necessarily those of GroundUp.

TOPICS:  Housing

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Write a letter in response to this article


Dear Editor

Schermbrucker and Jack demand better small towns where the poor have good access to urban services. This is great. I support that wholeheartedly. Actually, everyone supports that. But how to get there is a big debate.

Their chosen path to utopia is peppered with demand words like "must" and "should" and "disrupt" and to involve the disempowered poor to overthrow the hegemony of entrenched structural power. I would caution that if they plan to use a popular uprising to achieve structural disruption and spatial conquest then they may win a battle but lose the war. It may be a case of "Celebrate today and starve tomorrow". Their fragile rates base will be stone-cold dead and their town economy will be mortally wounded as the vanquished hegemonist bad guys ride out of town, taking their skills and their jobs with them.

It is famously hard to slow rural decay, let alone achieve rural growth, yet the topic very important for the country. If S&J can slightly temper their enthusiasm for populism then more contributions from them on rural development would be great. Specifically for small towns, I'd like to hear how to retain and attract skills and investment to fund rates, how to improve maintenance and increase service delivery, how to manage the contradictions of implementing spatial reforms, how to attract more grant money from National Treasury and how to improve the quality of life of all, in a broad and balanced sweep from investors to the indigent.

Dear Editor

I have read your article with interest and concur that spatial apartheid is still clearly apparent in many towns across SA.

However I must say that in small towns, things are changing. I travel a lot to the small places and have seen this with my own eyes. I recently stayed over in Steytlerville and was encouraged to see how many of the quaint Victorian style houses in the Main Street have been bought by people who would have previously not been allowed to buy in this area. I assumed this was a combination of a breadwinner working in the town, probably for the municipality, the low cost of buying houses in these towns and probably the bank providing a loan based on the breadwinners salary.

I also sensed a kind of working together in the town where anyone with expertise of any sort would lend a hand for maintenance or help wherever needed. That is because if they did not do it themselves, nobody would. I also saw total integration in the local school.

If you drive through Steytlerville, you will see that it is poor, but really neat and tidy. Same with Jansenville. Same with VanWyksdorp. What may be hard to admit, but the NG Kerk seems to be a driving force in these places. Their churches everywhere are beautifully maintained and the center of many things in these small towns.

I’m sure there are still issues but these towns get on with life. As soon as you get to a bigger town where being on the council may be seen as a status rather than a service, you can see more chaos, and things just remaining as they always were. Like Cradock and Grahamstown.

One thing that is also apparent is the role alcohol plays in some of these towns in keeping people poor. I would think if there was a focus on changing people’s habits with alcohol, this would magnify improvement in many areas. Maybe you can send one of your reporters to a few of these small towns to find out the story. The lessons learned perhaps could be useful in the bigger towns and cities.

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