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Home » September 2010

Land security in southern Africa

Poor people have few options in accessing land in formally sanctioned ways

It has emerged quite clearly from Urban Landmark's work in South Africa - and increasingly in the region - that the emergence of more sophisticated property markets has taken place locally and in most larger cities in the region. While there might be a need to assist these markets to develop further, in particular the need to build market institutions and professions, such as estate agencies, conveyancers and property developers, these groupings tend to increase their own capacities as the markets develop, mostly with little assistance.

In the southern Africa region, something more fundamental is needed. Most poor people, the majority in most cities and towns, do not have a legalised pathway to accessing land. They also do not have an administratively and legally supported way of holding onto land once they have accessed it - usually extra-legally, or in areas just beyond urban boundaries where land law becomes quasi- or fully customary. And nor do they have any way of then trading legally in property or use rights.

As a result, many people occupy land or inadequate shelter illegally and are then constantly vulnerable to eviction, have little access to basic services, and are not part of the planning process of cities.

Going back to basics

The concept of land security builds on our idea that an inclusive land use system and property market require certain fundamental building blocks.

The first pillar of land security is the combination of land rights and tenure security. For the Millennium Development Goal on improving the rights of slum dwellers, one of the first factors which defines a slum is insecure land rights. So by working on the issue of land security, we are addressing the MDG at a very fundamental level.

The second is good governance and sound urban planning which is inclusive of the (space) needs of poor people - both to live and to earn an income, or even to grow food. Competition over urban land is increasingly an issue, and governance of land to manage this access fairly is crucial.

The third pillar is improving participation in the market and the economy through lowered barriers to entry into the market.

Rebuilding land security in fragile states and post-conflict situations is also crucial. Without building land security, investment in many other areas of basic needs can be lost, for example, when people are evicted from their land or trading spaces.

Working towards greater land security is therefore a fundamental of both poverty alleviation and then of ongoing, sustainable wealth creation.

Why is this so important in a regional context, though?

The UK House of Commons report (2009) on Urbanisation and Poverty shows that Africa is the world's fastest urbanising region and has the highest proportion of slum dwellers. It cautions that without a new, comprehensive approach to urban development in Africa, a number of cities could face a humanitarian crisis in as little as five years' time, given the huge expansion of their urban populations.

The growth of slums, while it takes place in particular countries, is often driven by the movement of people within and between countries attracted to growing urban economies. The longer term prospects of people moving to growing cities and towns in the region are constrained by uncertain land tenure and weak urban planning. The movement of people across borders also fuels tensions and prejudices driven primarily by unacceptable conditions of poverty and vulnerability, which in turn feed political tensions because weak states are unable to respond effectively.

The movement of people also translates into demand for urban services and land, which takes place at the settlement level. Weaknesses in administration of land and inability to open up serviced land to cope with urbanisation results in more direct competition for space, and social protest over access.

Planning for the growth of cities and towns is essential, as is establishing a clear land tenure system which undergirds this planning for growth. Entrenched urban poverty is as much a symptom of weak access to land and property as it is a cause. Upgrading settlements, and incremental movement towards secure tenure for families living in poverty, is a crucial part of building resilient livelihoods and communities in southern Africa.

Markets are part of the picture if we wish to address more fundamental inclusion of the poor into the urban economy, because it is about competition for valuable space and about (sustainable) participation in growing urban economies. Comprehensive urban poverty strategies need to be linked to city development strategies. If access to land, how land is held (how secure tenure is) and how land is traded - whether for residential or business purposes - are not clearly defined, one of the key building blocks for sustainable poverty alleviation and economic growth is missing. Similar to the argument for food security, land security is fundamental to development in the region.

Ensuring additionality

Addressing urban poverty offers the opportunity to tackle wider development issues such as unemployment and crime, social exclusion, population growth, and climate change and the environment. We believe the most fundamental way to supplement the delivery of other, much-needed assistance in the region - such as health services, education opportunities and reduction in vulnerability to climate change - is to also address the urban slum conditions in which the poor majority live.

Treating a person dying of Aids is easier with clean water and sanitation. The spread of tuberculosis (and HIV/Aids) is directly related to overcrowded living conditions and the privacy of the rooms which women and men, boys and girls occupy.

Education is more effective when children are secure enough to be able to sleep at night and then go to school. Homework can be done more easily if there is space to study at home, with an electric light for when it gets dark.

Food security is possible if you have land to grow food on, or a room to rent to someone else so that you can pay for food.

Accumulation which leads to sustainable wealth creation is more possible if you have secure shelter and land tenure. It is not possible if land is sold out from under you or if your shack is continuously broken into.

Advances in health, education and small business establishment are improved if you have a secure place in an urban area and are not vulnerable to arbitrary eviction or conflict-related displacement.

Continuous land conflicts sap the energy of communities and individuals, and occupy the resources of local authorities trying to resolve such conflicts.

Migrants moving between countries and cities in the region become victim to xenophobic attack partly because of unclear government policies on land ownership, business ownership and refugee rights.

Competition for land - for living on, for growing crops or for urban development - is an underlying factor in many of these tensions which are becoming increasingly common. So the link with peace and security is very important. For there to be peace and security, it is essential that we build clear land rights and the capacity for responsible land management in the context of cross-border migration and rapid urban growth. The programmes and policies of governments in the region need to address the needs of both national and foreign residents.

Vulnerability to flooding, landslides, sea-level rise, droughts and severe weather events are often related to where people live. Unplanned urban growth and poverty place people in the pathway of these events.

So what are we saying?

Land security seeks to give the mass of the poor in southern African cities and towns access to

  • safe land and shelter, whether used for residential or small enterprise - this means safe from disaster, the effects of climate change and the effects of crime and violence
  • sufficient and well-located land
  • land secure from eviction
  • productive land, which can be used to build sustainable livelihoods and contribute to the urban economy
  • tradable land
  • serviced land, with water, sanitation and energy supply
  • integrated land, so that people do not have to access transport, health and education amenities at prohibitive costs.

Increasing security of tenure - through land reform and other means - therefore adds to a meaningful foundation for poverty alleviation.

What is the aim of all this?

A comprehensive region-wide set of agreements on land rights and access to land and services is key to economic growth, both for the poor, migrants and refugees, and for businesses seeking to invest in and across the region. People's access to land and land markets, and the role of the private sector, are key to economic growth in the region in the same way as access to finance is.

Our ultimate objective therefore is security and mobility so that people are able to maximise the benefits of living in urban areas.

How do we intend to do it?

Better governance of land and planning for urban growth are clear challenges in the region. The most visible manifestation of poverty is in the region's settlements where people live in slum conditions. We believe that building land markets and land rights from the bottom up, and fighting for better urban management, is where this should be addressed, as the enhancement of administrative and legal systems does not automatically guarantee that poorer communities are accommodated.

The focus of Urban LandMark's work going forward to strengthen land security in rapidly urbanising cities and towns in the Southern African region would be residential, trading and productive land for the poor, and the impacts of other land actors on the poor's access to secure land.

From a tenure and rights perspective, our objective is to build civil society to achieve land and property rights, and secure tenure, and to encourage municipalities to recognise the rights of slum dwellers and the need for incremental tenure. A further imperative is to reduce the incidence of evictions from informal settlements and other residential and trading spaces.

In addition, we aim to build communities' resilience in the face of disasters and climate change-related conditions.

From a governance perspective, it is crucial to build the capacity of municipalities to plan for urban growth and climate change, to manage land, to tax land and to capture land value - all in inclusive ways which lead to viable, self-sufficient municipalities.

In light of our overarching mandate of 'making urban land markets work better for poor people', we have to work towards lowering barriers to entry into the property market and the broader urban economy. Engaging the private sector, with government and civil society, to be part of the solution and to lead in some aspects, will be crucial.

Over and above these objectives, it is absolutely crucial to create a regional place for engagement to support organisations active in the sector, to build professional communities of practice and to establish knowledge-sharing networks and platforms.