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close this book BASIN - News No 11. March 1996: BASIN and the city summit
View the document Editorial
View the document Focus: BASIN and the city summit
View the document Shelter forum: The first southern BASIN-Partner
View the document BASIN at the Habitat II conference in Istanbul - May 30 to June 14, 1996
View the document The ecology and ethics of brick kilns
View the document Low-cost housing construction in Papua New Guinea
View the document The Costa Rica national bamboo project
View the document In search of choice: - Reconciling policy and the peoples process
View the document Technology and Social Action: A Housing Development Programme in Rafaela, Argentinia
View the document Enabling shelter strategies for low-income communities
View the document WAS: Basin Awareness sminar in Egypt
View the document CAS: Research and development on affordable binders and production processes
View the document Transition from project advised activity to independent entrepreneurship
View the document MEPI system, an essential management tool
View the document MCR Producers seminar and training in Uganda
View the document CECAT organises third Latin American MCR conference
View the document EAS: Improvement of locally manufactured earth block presses in Nigeria
View the document The low-cost building construction project as an answer to housing problems

In search of choice: - Reconciling policy and the peoples process


A more equitable housing policy has been formulated by the Government in South Africa since the first democratic elections in April 1994. It holds out great hope of a better future for the many. But generally speaking, its effects have yet to be felt on the ground. While large interests like banks, mortgage lenders, and the construction sector struggle to resolve the ‘big’ issues which continue to retard delivery, the people are continuing with their informal housing process almost unaided, using only the resources at their disposal, as if little had changed in the country. The question posed by this article is, what role should individuals and organisations with technological know-how play in such a context?


A little over half of the 8.3 million households (or 42.8 million people) in South Africa live in rural areas. Of the remaining half who stay in urban areas, it is estimated that 1.5 million households are living in inadequate shelter. Evidence suggests that many people aspire to the living conditions enjoyed by the minority living in formal, urban housing and pursue strategies designed to access this type of housing. Approximately 7 million people live in urban, informal settlements.

The New Housing Policy

Current housing policy is contained in the government White Paper on Housing and in the approach being pursued by the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP). The stated vision of housing policy is to ensure access for all on a progressive basis to a permanent residential structure with secure tenure, privacy and adequate protection against the elements, as well as potable water, adequate sanitation and electricity supply.

To achieve this the government has undertaken to increase housing’s share of the state budget to 5% and to plan for the building of one million houses in the next five years.

The RDP aims to develop policy and implement this policy at local level through a range of projects which demonstrate sustainable and equitable development. Despite these intentions, and commitments secured from the major actors in the home building industry to devote themselves to achieving these aims, delivery of low cost housing has remained slow and the targets for the first year have not been met. At the same time land invasions and the growth of informal settlements have continued.

Community-based organisations building informal housing are presently proving to be more efficient producers of housing stock, albeit predominantly impermanent, than the formal construction industry.

The state-led subsidy system which grants start up finance to low income earners buying or building their first house is beginning to function more efficiently and to stimulate the delivery of serviced sites with rudimentary shelter. However the poorest for whom the system was designed are still largely unreached often because of difficulties in accessing information on processes. They are therefore faced with the problems of building for themselves in difficult conditions arising both from their resource constraints and frequently because of the location of spontaneous settlements on land inappropriate for building.

The Role of Technologists

Against this backdrop of dire need and the tardy implementation of policy, what should the role of a technology partner’ be?

As a para-statal organisation, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), and more specifically, the Division of Building Technology within the CSIR, faces the same problems as many other community and non-government organisations seeking to assist with the meeting of housing needs. However the situation is somewhat unique both because the CSIR receives part of its funding from government, and therefore sees itself as a national resource, and because it is also in a position to operate both at a national and at a local level. This places it in a position which is in some ways special and attracts certain responsibilities.

Given this peculiar position, one potential role that can be played in a variety of situations is that of disinterested, or impartial arbiter. An example of this is that with meaningful participation in the housing process by the poor being a relatively recent phenomenon in South Africa, the plethora of innovative, and sometimes far-fetched, building systems with which communities are faced, gives rise to the need for an independent body to assess systems for appropriateness in different residential contexts. In order to make a well informed decision community groups often approach the CSIR to give an opinion on building systems. This function exists in a more formalised certification process through the Agrément Board, an independent body collaborating with the CSIR, which assesses applications for the approval of innovative building systems. But we believe that there is also a need for an evaluation system which addresses softer issues such as the potential benefits of a given building process to a community, and a variety of other appropriate technology concerns. This functionality is at present being developed but needs further stimulus from provincial and local government where the need for it exists at implementation level.

A second role played traditionally by many similar organisations around the world is to develop and test innovations of technologies. The essential element which has been missing from much of this kind of research in the past is that options developed in this way have not been sufficiently context- and community-specific. The availability of materials, skills and tools, the climate and microclimate, and the needs and aspirations of people, to name a few, are all factors which vary from region to region to such a degree as to preclude the application of universal "Solutions" to housing requirements.

Two thrusts have therefore emerged within the Division of Building Technology: one to test building options on a central test site in partnership with community groups, and two, to let this inform the design and building of demonstration sites in the different regions of the country to promote informed decision making by households attempting to access housing.

A third role which follows logically from the development of technologies, is the dissemination of information. Given that it is commonly held that the main challenge to technologists in this decade is not the development of new innovations, but the dissemination of existing knowledge, this role emerges as one of the most important ones. The richness of work done by other bodies around the world in this area will be one of the key resources on which the long isolated South African research community could draw.

There is a nascent movement in the country commonly referred to as the "housing support initiative". It envisages the establishment of a network of local housing support centres at which a range of housing-related advice can be accessed by community members when needed.

This network, already operating in many centres, would act as the ideal vehicle for the effective dissemination of much of the information needed by people both for home ownership education and for the actual building of houses and community facilities. Other ancillary functions such as materials supply yards, small component manufacture, training courses, and hive industries could also form part of the housing support centres. The preparation of information packs and training modules for use at the housing support centres is an essential and urgent task confronting technology organisations during the next few months.

linking income to housing for woman

The housing support centres hold out the hope of effectively delivering benefits to communities where the needs exist, rather than to flagship pilot projects which receive wide publicity but still represent the satisfaction of the needs of a minority of the poor.

Other foundation blocks still need to be put into place for the delivery process to begin to operate more efficiently, not least for recently elected local authorities to begin functioning and playing their role. Banks and building societies need to keep funding channels open to the poorer sector of their market. The construction industry needs to play its part in the efficient delivery of good quality, low cost housing, even if that means that it is starter housing that can be incrementally improved by residents. Provincial authorities need to attend to the timely identification of well-located land for settlement. Once these more macro-scale aspects are properly in place, then the demand for technological answers on site will increase as building activity burgeons.

A Comment on Appropriateness

As technology suppliers who are community focused begin to experience greater calls on their expertise, and are invited to play a part in the housing processes of the people, some thought needs to be given to the relationship between appropriateness, affordability and people’s aspirations. Several characteristics of the South African context need to be taken into account when applying the tenets of appropriate technology thinking.

- We firmly believe that rural and urban settlement are part of the same whole and should be treated as such by policy. However, despite the fact that many people who reside in cities maintain close links with rural homesteads, an attempt to apply some forms of traditional technology in an urban, informal context may well meet with opposition. Romantic views of rural living on the part of planners can be irrelevant to communities attempting to break into the urban economy.

- Related to this, efforts to formalise spontaneous settlements may also be opposed in certain situations. Motivations for living in urban shack settlements, often in rudimentary corrugated iron, earth or timber dwellings, may have more to do with strategies to access permanent housing than with a long term plan to consolidate the shack dwelling into a ‘proper’ house, as happens in many parts of the world. A full understanding of the priorities and aspirations of residents is a prerequisite to any intervention.

- Apart from the need for structural stability, climatic efficiency, aesthetic appeal, and the use of local materials and skills, an additional measure of suitability is often applied by people when choosing an appropriate house building system for themselves. Sadly, with the situation of widespread crime and political conflict in many parts of the country, residents often find it necessary to ascertain whether a wall material is capable of protecting the occupants from armed attack. Tests such as knocking on the wall or kicking it to test its firmness, may be expressive of such concerns. Several sheet technologies such as hardboard or tent structures and the like are often rejected on these grounds.

- The apartheid policy of excluding most African people from the major urban centres of the country, led to a situation in which the privileged few who had rights to dwell in the city were heavily subsidised through reduced rents and transport costs. As a result of this and the fact that full ownership of property by African people was also illegal under the previous regime, few people have an accurate perception of the costs of building and maintaining a house. The capital subsidy introduced recently by the new government is sufficient to provide a serviced site, but there is little remaining money to build a house. This means that those able to raise a bank loan can secure complete housing for themselves, but that the vast majority of people who are not able, feel that the subsidy is a promise of ‘proper’ housing but find that it is not.

Therefore, for practitioners and organisations trying to make as many options as possible available to people in this situation, the challenge is to negotiate through the constraints of urban aspirations and fears, to apply sound development principles, and then to seek to enable people to acquire acceptable housing who are often experiencing extreme resource constraints.

self-help upgrading of slum houses with modern materials

Principles of a People Centered Technology Process

Any attempt to apply technological know-how in this complex situation must of necessity be people centered. There are a series of fundamental principles which we believe to be essential points of departure for such a process of identifying efficient and realistic ways of doing things.

- The innovation which exists amongst the poor should be drawn on, and treasured as the most valuable asset available to decision makers, planners and implementors.

- Technical skills exist in abundance in each and every community. While the products created may not be certifiable or conventional, the ability to build homes faster than any formal developer in the country at the moment has been convincingly demonstrated.

- The perception on the part of both residents and authorities of an informal shack as a problem should change to being seen as a positive basis for future development.

- Appropriate technologies exist already in many places. These have potential to form the foundation from which people are able to organise their own enthusiasm, initiatives and ideas to work for the benefit of their own people. What could be supported are the means for improving these technologies and solutions, and transferring them to similar groups.

- Technical consultancy between groups could be facilitated to develop solutions and build capacity.

- Development projects should take care not to put added pressures onto women already overloaded by other demands on their resources.

- The essence of the technology need is to build and upgrade existing systems of construction rather than attempting to replace them in a single stroke with systems developed for contractor-driven or large scale industrialised housing. Ways of strengthening and complementing the informal sector’s survival mechanisms need to be found.

- Technical support cannot be provided from a centralised, national facility or base. It needs to be regional or even condition-specific and be able to react quickly to changing needs.

- The required support needs to straddle the worlds of housing rights and alternative technologies.

If the really poor are to benefit then the application of these principles may help to focus the not inconsiderable resources available for housing. Certainly direct interventionary processes of delivery have not, and will not ensure adequate housing for the millions of unhoused, and under-housed people in the country.

There are organisations, such as the Homeless People’s Federation, which are serving as role models for people-driven housing delivery systems. Such organisations, which are women orientated and operate from a core of localised savings clubs, have acted as catalysts in the development of a people’s process in South Africa capable of reconciling policy and the people’s process.

It remains to be seen whether the present efficiency of this informal housing process will one day be challenged by the public and private sectors’ formal attempts to ensure access to housing for all in South Africa.

By Mark Napier and Dorelle Sapere,

Houses Group, Building Technology, Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, Pretoria, South Africa.