The virtue of national policies

South Africa

Reflections on South Africa’s National Upgrading Support Programme (NUSP)

There is an observable increase in activity of national governments in enabling local development approaches for informal settlements.

This shift is a response to the realities of the urban millennium, particularly in the most rapidly urbanising region of Sub Saharan Africa, whose cities will accommodate around 300 million new inhabitants in the next 20 years (UNDESA 2011). This emerging interest by these national tiers is more than needed considering that some estimates calculate around $20 billion of local investment required for the cities of Sub Saharan Africa (Paulais 2012: 100); an investment deficit that exceeds by far local financial capabilities. Despite the acknowledged necessity of supporting national institutional environments for local development approaches, analytical reviews and assessments of existing fruitful experiences are so far limited. Sharing promising examples to illustrate enabling institutional environments at the national level for locally determined solutions to investment challenges in informal settlements, such as housing, is necessary.


Sub Saharan Africa’s cities will accommodate around 300 million new inhabitants in the next 20 years

This article would like to contribute to closing this void by reviewing the South African National Upgrading Support Programme (NUSP), a project facilitated by the Cities Alliance. Against the backdrop of rising service delivery protests by residents in several South African Cities in recent years, this review is a tempting challenge. It is reported that the delivery of housing stock is one of the core demands in these protests across the country. Commentators believe that due to the lack of government responses to these demands this turmoil “should no longer be seen only as 'protests', but rather as 'municipal revolts' and a 'rebellion by the poor'”(Burger 2012). We would like to argue here that one of the modest virtues of national programmes, such as NUSP, can be to create an institutional framework and political space to allow policy discourses at the national and local level to emerge. So, it is the provision of a new governance space between e.g. the national and local development actors and between government bodies and non-governmental organisations that can make a difference. This is particularly interesting in the case of South Africa, where different policy solutions to housing shortages, from incremental housing to the government-led production of mass housing stock, have been implemented at different times in the past and a policy discourse to housing was officially stopped. The article begins with a quick snapshot on the milestones in South African pro-poor housing legacies, before it illustrates some of the key features and achievements of the programme. It ends with reflections for future partnerships in Sub-Saharan Africa.


South African roofs


Making up lost ground: The need for affordable housing and the National Upgrading Support Programme 

South Africa has a well documented history in approaches to affordable housing (Adebayo 2011; Huchzermeyer 2006; Martin 2010). Since the 1980s a range of housing initiatives have been undertaken, embedded within and triggered by a fundamental change of the socio-political landscape in South Africa. The policy foci of these initiatives swung like a pendulum from government-led housing production to private sector-led initiatives for low-income housing delivery to community self-help. Within these policy streams approaches, such as the acceptance of informal and incremental housing, were either seen as legitimate phenomena and promising policies or stigmatised later as short-term solutions (Lombard 1996:25).

As an outcome of the National Housing Forum between 1992-1994 the preamble to Housing White Paper declared that time to discuss different approaches to housing would be over and “the time for delivery has arrived”(DoH 1994). A number of strategies were rolled-out to fulfil this promise in this first decade of democracy, such as a subsidy scheme for lower income households, broad joint partnerships between the state, private sector and NGOs through social compacts as well as various schemes for credit and private sector investments.

One of the key schemes to respond to the housing needs in informal settlements was however the national government’s Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) launched at the end of 1994. The RDP identified that an estimated 4.3 million families did not have adequate housing, and some 12 million people lacked electricity at the time when the initiative was created. It envisioned therefore extensive government programmes to raise living standards – to build houses and roads, to provide services, to upgrade education, and to create jobs to narrow the gap between rich and poor. The Programme postulated a fundamental break with apartheid practices and former policies to become an integrated, socio-economic policy aimed at mobilising people and resources towards attaining a democratic and non-racist society. This ambitious programme envisaged to deliver one million houses in five years, whose target was met by 2001 through a massive subsidy programme producing low-cost standardised “RDP” housing units throughout the country. Through this Programme, the National Department of Housing (NDoH) had delivered more than two million subsidised houses; made available serviced stands, facilitating future housing delivery; and made restitution of land to those formerly dispossessed.

However, 15 years later it was estimated that nearly one in four households in South Africa still lived in informal dwellings/shacks or traditional housing. Whereas the number of households living in informal dwellings has increased, the share of informal housing has fallen throughout the country (SACN 2011). An estimated 2,600 informal settlements can be found in South Africa today, compared to around 300 in 1994 (NUSP 2011). So despite all efforts, South Africa still faces a skyrocketing number of households living in informal settlements; persistent housing shortage and a crisis of expectations among residents, particularly in informal settlements.

However, since 2008, a promising trajectory has been unfolding. It was this year when South Africa’s National Department of Human Settlements (NDHS) received support from the Cities Alliance and the World Bank Institute to reassess its housing policy approach with particular focus on informal settlement upgrading through the Upgrading Informal Settlements Programme (UISP), which provides financial grants to local authorities for informal settlement upgrading needs. Based on a study in 16 pilot areas across the country, this critical assessment recommended moving beyond the orthodox approach of large-scale housing construction and resettlement, to promoting a more flexible approach to housing for the poor. The result was the formation of the National Upgrading Support Programme (NUSP) to provide a supporting and refining policy framework for the implementation of UISP.


NUSP aimed to facilitate the structured in-situ upgrading of informal settlements for 400,000 households by 2014


NUSP aimed to facilitate the structured in-situ upgrading of informal settlements through the provision of basic infrastructure, services and land tenure for 400,000 informal settlement households by 2014 (Cities Alliance 2011). A key feature of the programme to achieve this ambition is to support municipalities to fully develop their capacity and knowledge to implement in situ settlement upgrading. Since local authorities were conceptualised as key actors for the implementation of upgrading informal settlement in receipt of funding, NUSP formulated a set of key activities to build up the capacity of these municipalities already participating in UISP. Overall, NSUP has given itself four main activity streams:


  1. Policy Promotion and Refinement;
  2. Support networks and forums for officials and specialists;
  3. Knowledge tools that provides practical information, shared experience and good practices, including resources, capacity building and demand-responsive training programs and
  4. Technical assistance throughout the implementation.


A number of notable activities derived from these streams since 2008, most notably a series of upgrading forums being held across the country to promote peer-to-peer learning. The NUSP Forum, which is bringing together all provinces and 49 cities committed to sharing their experiences and scale up slum upgrading initiatives, serves as a decentralised capacity development platform to support UISP implementation throughout the country.

Partnerships among various stakeholders including government authorities, private sector, civil society and residents of informal settlements are also being strengthened and capacity building activities have been developed along with learning resources such as an interactive resource toolkit for everyone, who is involved in designing and implementing projects in terms of the UISP. This upgrading manual covers information for local practitioners on how to approach a locally defined and managed in-situ upgrading policy.

Reviewing the implementation process of NUSP, two achievements are especially noteworthy: (a) a policy shift from housing provision to in-situ upgrading and (b) newly established partnership practices for implementation.

The first clear achievement of the programme is its contribution to an important a policy shift in housing policy. For the first time, in-situ upgrading has become part of South African housing policy, offering more flexible approaches to large scale subsidised housing production. To what extent this policy shift is paving the ground to drive expectations among the growing urban population to accept in-situ upgrading as a viable and affordable policy option for housing will need to be subject of further observations in the future.

The second remarkable achievement that can already be highlighted is the chosen forms of governance throughout the implementation process of the programme and the division of labour between the different tiers of government. Being a programme to be implemented by local development actors, it is the municipal level in which key decisions on identifying areas and challenges in informal settlements as well as preferred solutions are being formulated. NUSP has put the capacity building of local authorities at its centre of attention, which was reinforced and up-scaled through the collaboration with the South African Local Government Association.

Moreover, a partnership with the South African Slum/Shack Dwellers International Alliance was established, which has been intensifying its work with local authorities to develop tools for upgrading informal settlements (Bolnick and Bradlow 2010). Community participation which had hardly materialised in South Africa’s housing programmes, has now became one of the key demonstrations of NUSP to illustrate how in-situ upgrading depends on a profound participation of shack dwellers. In this way new partnerships have been formed regulated by newly structured governance agreements between local authorities and represented community groups.


South African land


Another remarkable feature in the governance arrangement of NUSP is the commitment and role of the national government as the initiator of the programme. Even though the programme still has some major mile stones ahead, such as the roll-out for informal settlement upgrading in the whole country through specific grant procedures, which will require - given the decentralised systems of governance in South Africa - an intensive consultation process, the programme has already gained the highest political support. The ambition to upscale in-situ upgrading across the country was for example reinvigorated by an historic Presidential Delivery Agreement of President Jacob Zuma and the Minister of Human Settlements Tokyo Sexwale in 2010 assigning an financial allocation of ZAR 22 billion (approximately USD 3 billion) to the programme in the 2011-14 fiscal period. For the first time ever, in-situ upgrading had gained the necessary political support for its inclusion at the centre of the national housing policy and through the Delivery Agreement, the government holds itself accountable for its implementation (NUSP 2011).


There is an important institutional change: In-situ upgrading has been rediscovered and become an official housing policy


To sum up, even though the impacts of the programme on the lives of residents in informal areas are not yet measurable and strongly influenced by recent protests, the way in which the programme has been set up and implemented has already contributed to an important institutional change. In-situ upgrading has been rediscovered and become an official housing policy. But more importantly with regard to recent protests, is the ability of the established governance structure of NUSP to allow a structured discourse between local authorities and community groups on measures in informal areas using technical tools and knowledge provided and disseminated by the national government.


National policies for slum-upgrading: some reflections for future partnerships 

Reflecting upon this review of a rather recent multi-level governance approach to slum-upgrading in South Africa allows formulating at least four considerations that might inform future partnership programmes in Sub Sahara Africa.

1. The national government can act as an effective enabler of local innovations rather than an implementing body at the neighbourhood level.

The institutional set up as implemented in NUSP offers an interesting example on the potential role of a national government tier in a country-wide slum-upgrading programme. Being first and foremost an enabler of local innovations, the national level can have multiple roles: to assemble international experiences, to build a cross-ministerial consensus on the programme objectives, to set up a knowledge infrastructure that can inform local practitioners, to provide the necessary regulatory framework for local authorities to receive funding, etc. Opening up and contributing to a discussion space for alternative policy options in housing policies was one of the most remarkable features of NUSP, in which an active and open participation of the national government was necessary. So, whereas the national government provided the necessary institutional framework conditions, the implementation of the programme lies in the hands of local partnerships.

2. Changing policies and governance processes requires intensive consensus building at the local and national level, which need long term commitments of Technical Assistance Projects.

The partnership arrangement as illustrated above between the national and local government tier as well as between the local state and community organisations can be seen as an instructive model of participatory governance that could inform partnerships in other African countries as well. Even though national and local contexts differ, experiences of the Cities Alliance in Country Programmes of Mozambique, Uganda and Burkina Faso suggest that such a model of a multi-level partnership is indeed required to create the necessary broad-based consensus among administrations, policy makers, residents and urban practitioners to achieve a lasting institutional change, particularly when it comes to the acceptance of new policies, such as in-situ upgrading. This also implies a change of current ways of project planning among international development agencies. Providing technical assistance to a partnership in such a manner requires time, effort and a long-term commitment, which goes beyond a usual three year project lifespan.

3. The role of incremental housing, its scope and constraints need to be further highlighted and shared.

The experiences of NUSP with regard to the failure of standardised housing delivery models clearly corresponds with other statements made elsewhere (Wakely and Riley 2010). The failure to respond to the sheer scale of need of the urban poor raises the question of whether the time has arrived to revisit the incremental housing approaches as a more realistic approach to meeting the housing needs of the urban poor. A stronger exchange on these experiences among the urban community is deemed necessary. It seems imperative to illustrate how governments and international development institutions can support incremental housing to acknowledge that lasting housing processes are household driven, enabling low-income people to acquire, extend, improve, and service their dwellings and neighbourhoods over time.

By Rene Peter Hohmann and Julian Baskin

Rene Peter Hohmann holds a PhD in Geography from King’s College London and a Master’s degree in Social Sciences from Humboldt University in Berlin. He works as a Senior Urban Specialist at the Cities Alliance and is particularly interested in poverty oriented development approaches in cities. He has extensive research and consultancy experience in evaluating urban regeneration schemes in Europe and slum-upgrading programmes in developing countries. Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Julian Baskin, a town and regional planner with more than 25 years of experience in urban development, is the Head of the Programme Unit at the Cities Alliance secretariat. Prior to joining Cities Alliance, Baskin served as Director of the Alexandra Renewal Project (ARP), Gauteng Province, South Africa. During his career with international agencies UN-Habitat and CARE he has worked and lived in Mozambique, Angola and Bangladesh. In South Africa he worked for the national NGO Planact and was Director of the City of Durban Metro Housing Department. Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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