International Development Planning Review 40.2 Featured Article

The editors of International Development Planning Review have selected ‘Spanning the spectrum: infrastructural experiences in South Africa’s state housing programme’ by Sarah Charlton, as the Featured Article for the latest issue.

It will be free to access for a limited time here.

When asked to describe the paper, and highlight its importance, the author stated the following:

In recent years policy discussions and scholarly debates have flagged a major issue in the housing landscape of developing countries: that of informal settlements and slums, and the in-situ upgrading of these. However in several parts of the world there has been at the same time another, highly significant low-income housing process underway: that of state funded and/or state provided new-built houses, delivered en masse. Important examples can be found in Chile, Mexico and South Africa. Because of their scale these formal housing developments have major impacts on the built form of urban areas, on capital budgets, on the operating or maintenance budgets of authorities tasked with managing new neighbourhoods, and also on political dynamics. A further enormous impact, of course, is on people’s lives – the lives of residents relocated to or newly living in these locations – and this is a relatively understudied area of investigation.

This article discusses South Africa’s mass housing programme, built for the poorest of the poor since the transition to democracy in 1994. It is dramatic both in terms of the sheer number of houses that have been delivered, but also because of the political potency of housing, land and ownership given the history of the country which barred urban rights for the majority of the population. The housing delivery has been both celebrated for its various achievements but also criticised for failing to fulfil some of its own objectives. In this article the discussion moves beyond either celebratory or condemnatory accounts to consider some of the detail of people’s interactions with the housing – what they do with their houses, how they make use of them, what role the houses play in their lives. Focusing on Johannesburg, interviews with housing beneficiaries reveal varied and complex interactions and the reasons for them. These practices include modifications and adjustments such as changing the physical form or some of the uses of the house, but beyond this, even at times to altering family configurations and social rhythms in relation to the housing.

The paper makes the argument that these sorts of bottom-up adaptions are necessary to make a flawed and spatially fixed housing intervention ‘work’ in people’s lives, given a particular context of joblessness, poverty, and sprawling, inefficient cities. Socio-economic conditions were not as anticipated at the advent of the housing programme, when living in a formal house and commuting to a formal job were the envisaged future. Instead, in the absence of jobs, informal forms of income generation have become endemic, and some people use the government-provided house for this purpose. Although some adaptions of the house, and of people’s practices, transgress regulations and appear to contest authority, they should not be seen as a defiance or rejection of the houses or the state’s perspectives on this, but as an important contribution to animating and making liveable this particular form of infrastructure. The argument here is that it is in the combination of state-provided housing infrastructure and people’s appropriation of it that the housing contribution needs to be assessed: in other words, not only does the infrastructure (by and large) help sustain lives as anticipated – through providing shelter, services and security – but people’s agency assists in making it function in more multi-faceted ways, which are necessary in less than ideal circumstances and thus thereby strengthening the credibility of the government’s infrastructure.