Ronald Eglin: Unauthorised land occupation in our cities – Why demolishing is not the answer

Home|Managed Land Settlement|Ronald Eglin: Unauthorised land occupation in our cities – Why demolishing is not the answer

THE following are edited extracts of an article by Ronald Eglin published in the Daily Dispatch newspaper on 20 February 2018 shortly after members of the public flocked to an open piece of land near the R72 road outside the East London Airport in what the media dubbed at the time “the biggest attempt at land grab Buffalo City Metropolitan Municipality has seen.” It now appears from the news report of the Daily Dispatch of 28 July 2020 that Law Enforcement attempts to thwart the unauthorised land occupation in 2018 failed as some people managed to build houses on the said land, and attempts continue to be made, more than two years later, to evict these land occupiers. The content of the article is still as relevant as it was when it was first written in early 2018.

Just to paint a picture of why the unauthorised land occupation might be happening, the population in the metro, like other large cities around the country, continues to grow. According to BCMM’s Built Environment Performance Plan of 2014/15, the metro has an estimated total of 154 informal settlements within its boundaries. In terms of the Community Survey of 2016, the population in the metro grew from 755 000 in 2011 to 810 000 in 2016. The number of informal dwellings increased from 49 000 in 2011 to 62 000 in 2016, or at a rate of 2 600 households per annum. The 2011 Census reported an average household size of 3.2 persons in the metro, which puts the number of people living in informal dwelling units at roughly 198 400 people, or almost 25% of the metro’s population. In 2015, Afesis-corplan did research for the Housing Development Agency (HDA) responding to “unauthorised land occupation”. The purpose of the research was to make recommendations on how the government could respond to land invasions or unauthorised land occupation. In that research, Afesis-corplan argued first and foremost that there is a legal difference between land invasion (land grab) and unauthorised land occupation. This was informed by a legal opinion given by lawyers from the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa, who assisted in the research. Land invasion occurs where people occupy land or buildings with the express intent to coerce government into providing housing on a preferential basis to those who participate in the occupation. Unauthorised land occupation, on the other hand, occurs when people have been evicted from a particular piece of land, for example a farm by a farm owner, and have nowhere else to go. Our courts are generally more lenient and favourably disposed towards a person in a situation where they have nowhere else to go, but if it is a land invasion, then the courts will be more inclined to grant eviction orders such as what possibly happened in the case near the R72. Generally, people occupy land because they don’t have anywhere else to go, but this is very debatable because others may argue that the unauthorised land occupiers “have been living somewhere else before, so they must just go back to wherever they come from”. A potential problem is when people are kicked from one occupation to another. For example, if the government evicts a group of people from a particular piece of land, those people go somewhere else, then the government evicts them from there too, and they then go somewhere else. This kind of chasing people from one unauthorised land occupation to another is problematic in that it is not solving the problem. The conclusion that we came to in our research for the HDA was the government needs to adopt a three-pronged approach in looking at land occupation that can be categorised as 1) occupation that has happened in the past; 2) occupation that is happening now; and 3) occupation that could happen in the future.

Land occupation that has happened in the past is effectively informal settlements. We continue to argue that the solution to this is for the government to implement its programme of upgrading informal settlements. The problem up to now is that the government has been slow to properly implement this programme. When it comes to dealing with occupation as it is happening now, as we recently witnessed on the side of the R72, we recommended to the HDA that the government must follow the rules and implement its own existing laws. This includes following the provisions of the Prevention of Illegal Eviction from, and Unlawful Occupation of Land Act (19 of 1998) and providing alternative accommodation in situations where people would be rendered homeless by eviction.

Thirdly, on the question of how to deal with unauthorised land occupation that could happen in the future – in our opinion this is where the government needs to be proactive, place as a priority and focus its attention. The government must make more land available with at least access to a basic level of services and allow people to move onto this land and start to build their own houses in a managed and systematic manner. This we call “managed land settlement”. In short, we suggest that the government prioritise managed land settlement and make large parcels of land available so that people do not have to occupy the land without authorisation. Unfortunately, with the delays in the finalisation of the white paper on human settlements, we remain unsure of what the policy approach and thinking in government is with regard to these and other suggestions made by civil society on how best it can manage to give access to land for those who desperately need it. The last draft of the human settlement white paper came out in November 2015 and since then, there have been no further drafts.

Ronald Eglin is the Sustainable Settlement Specialist at Afesis-corplan, a non-government organisation based in East London, Eastern Cape. Before joining the organisation, Ronald studied City and Regional Planning at the University of Cape Town. Ronald joined Afesis-corplan in the early 1990s as a Project Worker in the Projects Department. His present work predominantly focuses on land access and sustainable settlement work. Ronald has a keen interest in development planning, community development, environmentally sustainable development and participatory planning. Some of his more recent interests include the People’s Housing Process (PHP), co-operative housing, incremental settlement development, land access, and urban and rural land tenure and land use management. Ronald enjoys the challenge of learning about and trying out new approaches to development that encourage community control of the development process. His vision for land and housing in South Africa is one where everyone has access to land and basic services as a first step towards incrementally improving their housing situation.