Rapid urbanisation has contributed to the growth of informal housing on a large scale. The accelerated migration of people from mainly rural areas into urban areas has caused informal settlements to grow beyond the coping capacity of municipal infrastructure, which has resulted in the deterioration of living conditions and the surrounding environment.
Post 1994, the South African government had the challenge of realising the right to adequate housing, as well as addressing the devastatingly poor living conditions related to basic services delivery (water, sanitation, electricity). Residents that live in these informal settlements exist in a permanent state of legal and social insecurity, as they live on land without the necessary consent, are subject to threats of eviction and many lack access to basic municipal services such as safe water, sanitation, solid waste collection and disposal, stormwater drainage, roads and public transport, electricity, street lightning and public spaces. This insecurity reduces the incentive for residents to invest in the area, and exacerbates social stress and exclusion.
Although there had been a decrease in the urban population living in informal settlements from 17 percent in 2002 to 11 percent in 2014, the percentage of households living in informal dwellings had barely decreased – from 13.6 to 13.1 percent during the same period. Although more South Africans are living in formal housing now than ever before, informal settlements are not getting any smaller. Migration patterns and the burgeoning number of backyard dwellings are major contributors to the current situation.
The release of the 2011 population census data showed that the number of households living in backyard dwellings increased by 253 400 to 713 000 during the previous decade (up 55%), while the number living in free-standing shacks decreased by 126 900, to 1 249 800. It is important to note that actual numbers of households residing in informal settlements is likely to be significantly higher than the recent estimates by Stats SA, as evidenced by the surveys of major cities themselves, which often indicate that they can be up to 40% more than stated in the official figures. It can therefore be argued that the actual number of households living in informal settlements in South Africa is probably substantially more than the official Stats SA figures, and that, contrary to what official estimates suggest, there has probably not been a decline in numbers of households living in informal settlements in recent years.
While it should be acknowledged that, given the present realities, informal housing should be promoted as a necessary component of the total housing delivery package, it must be recognised that informal shelter is not ideal housing for anyone. Once all South Africans have access to at least basic services, then serious attention should be given to upgrading the quality of housing and infrastructure. Adequate sanitation (for example, the introduction of ventilated pit latrines) and potable water (for example, standpipes) are the most basic elements of an upgrading strategy. Street lighting, roads for emergency vehicles, effective policing and primary health care facilities are also essential.