In 2014, the South African government announced a new direction in housing policy. The aim was to phase out smaller low cost housing projects of a few hundred units and focus exclusively on megaprojects – new settlements made of multitudes of housing units combined with a host of social amenities.
Given the uneven access to housing that resulted from apartheid, housing delivery has been a major focus of since 1994. Government’s 20 year review - 1994 to 2014 - reported that 3.7 million subsidised housing opportunities were created, undoubtedly a remarkable achievement.
Nevertheless in 2014 the then Minister of Human Settlements, Lindiwe Sisulu, became extremely concerned that house production had been falling. And, a backlog of 2.3 million families remained. The Minister favoured megaprojects (also referred to as catalytic projects) as a way of getting delivery back on track.
Large human settlement projects weren’t entirely new to South Africa. Several were already at an advanced stage of construction in 2014. What was new in this announcement was the idea that all housing would be delivered exclusively through the construction of megaprojects across the country. From 2014 to 2017, the Department of Human Settlements developed a list of 48 catalytic projects which was finalised last year.
In a recently published academic paper we argue that the policy was underdeveloped. The megaprojects approach moved swiftly from announcement, to discussion documents and frameworks, to the creation of lists of large scale projects. Most of this process occurred behind closed doors, with little consultation. And there has been little space to examine the limitations of the megaprojects approach – as well as the merits of alternatives, such as smaller urban infill projects.
Nevertheless the paper attempts to account for the uptake of the megaprojects idea within the human settlements sector, and understand the motivations and agendas of those who promoted it.
Rationales for megaprojects
In a broad sense megaprojects are glamorous because they are much more visible and impressive than diffuse small-scale projects. As a result, politicians can brand their delivery more effectively. Megaprojects convey a sense of decisive action in which the state can flex its muscle in big hit interventions.
More specifically, champions of the megaprojects approach believed that large scale projects could deliver more houses quicker. When announcing the policy in 2014, the then minister of human settlements, Lindiwe Sisulu, stated that megaprojects would help deliver 1.5 million units by 2019.
Some advocates of the megaprojects approach, notably the Gauteng provincial government, were particularly attracted to the idea of creating whole new “post-apartheid cities” which could meet the “live, work and play” needs internally. Starting afresh with new settlements would be a way of designing urban spaces to avoid the inequalities and inefficiencies that beset existing cities. They would also bring major projects to poor areas that had little else to drive any significant economic growth.
Megaprojects were also intended to solve a variety of governance problems. In particular, it was extremely difficult to manage the 11 000 human settlement projects that were at various stages across the country. Consolidating these into just a few dozen projects was a way of focusing government’s attention and reducing administrative burdens and costs.
The megaprojects approach also seemed to be a way of managing the division of work and some of the tensions between different spheres of government and various departments. With some local authorities having taken on more responsibility for housing projects, national and provincial government considered megaprojects to be a way of bringing housing under more centralised management.
Some critics are less concerned about the scale of the projects than the fact that they could be poorly located. That’s largely because better located land is more expensive. In addition, there isn’t a great deal of well-located land that is large enough to accommodate new settlements of this scale.
The history of attempting to construct new towns shows how difficult it is to create new urban centres with enough jobs for the people who live there. There is a fear that megaprojects will be no different and once the construction jobs run out, residents would have to bear the cost of travelling long distances to jobs outside the settlement.
Megaprojects on the urban periphery are also counter to the plans expressed in a wide variety of policy documents to curb urban sprawl and densify existing cities. Peripheral locations also have other challenges. If new projects are located far from sewage, water, electricity and roads then these would have to be laid out great financial and environmental costs.
Other concerns have focused more directly on the huge scale of new projects. Big projects take many years to get off the ground, and so delivery can sometimes be suspended for a long time.
Towards a balanced policy
In a recent parliamentary address, the new Minister of Human Settlements Noma-Indiya Mfeketo stated that catalytic projects “worth more than half a Trillion Rand” had been initiated. Yet she also announced that the budget had suffered a “massive cut” as a result of the fiscal challenges facing the state.
We believe that the moment should allow for some reflection on the now four year old megaprojects direction. This reflection should consider whether all housing should be delivered in megaprojects as originally intended by this policy, or whether a range of project sizes should be encouraged to facilitate, in particular, urban infill projects within existing urban areas.
Planned megaprojects should be evaluated with respect to their location, total cost to the state and long term sustainability. While some are reasonably accessible, others are peripheral, with marginal economic opportunities at best. South Africa cannot afford to construct housing in spaces that have few economic prospects and limited benefits for urban residents and the country.