7 June 2001


NEW YORK, 6 June (UN Headquarters) -- The provision of quality housing to South Africa’s poor majority was a key point of discussion this morning, as the Thematic Committee of the General Assembly’s special session began its examination of urban development issues.

The special session is reviewing implementation of the Habitat Agenda, which was adopted at the Second United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat II) (Istanbul, 1996). The Thematic Committee has been established to allow a forum for an exchange of experiences and lessons learned since Istanbul. In five meetings it will examine 16 case studies on the themes of: shelter; social development and the eradication of poverty; environmental management; economic development; governance; financing of urban development; and international cooperation.

This morning’s case study dealt with the right to adequate housing in South Africa, as well as sustainable urban development and good governance. Making her country's presentation, Sanki Mthembi-Mahanyele, South Africa's Minister for Housing, described the provision of subsidies to "the poorest of the poor", as well as efforts to convince them not to wait for government assistance. The country had harnessed community resources in an effort to meet and exceed housing targets. But, there were serious challenges, including those posed by disaster management. Flooding had caused massive damage to housing three years ago.

She said financial institutions were reluctant to give loans to the poor, which they identified as a high-risk undertaking. While some inroads had been made in changing such perceptions, the poor still faced difficulties in accessing the desired level of credit. Such attitudes resulted from South Africa's history and were linked to discrimination, alienation and subtle racism. They were being discussed and challenged, she added.

During the ensuing discussions, Committee members asked questions and made comments concerning numerous issues, including subsidies; the needs of those who had previously suffered discrimination on grounds of race, class or gender; and the involvement of the people in building their own houses. Also discussed were funding for savings; the sustainability of providing free housing; the transfer of skills and technology; urban sprawl; and the proportion of housing costs consumed by the provision of water, electricity and roads.

At the opening of the meeting, the Committee’s Chairman, Slaheddine Belaid, Minister of Building Planning and Habitat of Tunisia, informed the delegates about the format of the session.

In other business this morning, the Committee elected its three Vice-Chairmen: Jose Maria Matamoros, President of the National Council on Shelter of Venezuela; Erna Witoelar, Minister of Human Settlements and Human Structures of Indonesia; and Lois Gracia Cerezo (Spain); it also elected the Committee’s Rapporteur, Laszlo Miklos, Minister for the Environment of Slovakia.

Discussion Paper*

According to a discussion paper prepared by the Government, South Africa's national housing policy promotes a number of approaches and initiatives, including the People’s Housing Process of the Department of Housing. Initiated in 1998, the programme enables individuals and communities to access land, services and technical assistance. In collaboration with local authorities, non-governmental organizations and the poor themselves it has been instrumental in building more than one million housing units since 1994.

The document says that, as a result of apartheid, human settlements in South Africa were characterized by the spatial separation of residential areas according to class and population groups, urban sprawl, a lack of access to basic services, and concentration of the poor on the urban periphery. Those factors have led to inequitable, highly inefficient and unsustainable human settlements.

South Africa's 1996 Constitution recognizes the need to meet people’s basic housing needs, according to the discussion paper. Section 26 guarantees the right of "access to adequate housing". It is the Government’s duty to take reasonable legislative and other measures, within its available resources, to achieve the realization of this right. Although the right to adequate housing cannot be achieved immediately, it must be achieved over time.

In 1994, attempting to address the imbalances and inequities of previous policies, the newly elected democratic Government established the Reconstruction and Development Programme, which set a new policy agenda for the country, based on the principles of meeting people’s basic needs on a sustainable basis. In addition, the Government also introduced the Growth, Employment and Redistribution, macro-economic strategy, with the aim of strengthening economic growth and increasing and redistributing employment opportunities in South Africa.

Interactive Session

Numerous speakers in the debate discussed various aspects of South Africa's housing programme, citing their own countries' experiences.

One issue had always been the participation of financial institutions and giving loans to developers, one of the speakers said. Subsidies were being guaranteed by the Government, with some of the funding coming from the beneficiaries themselves. "Equity in terms of sweat", or savings, helped to create new housing. Construction also generated a lot of jobs, and that was helpful in poverty eradication.

Another participant pointed out that the poor, including women, were coming together to start "savings groups" and develop trust, giving people an opportunity to manage their own lives. People were not waiting for the Government to solve their problems. Instead, with the Government’s help, they were building their own houses, which were "adequate and beautiful".

Governments had a responsibility to provide direct support for housing construction, a speaker said, and they could not withdraw from such projects. At the same time, however, it was important to emphasize the role of local authorities. While building housing, it was also important to control the urban sprawl, he added, citing Belgium as an example. That country was now "100 per cent urbanized" and was looking for open and green spaces.

Other questions addressed: the mechanisms developed in South Africa to allow for high-scale building projects; vocational training; access to loans; the question of slums; incentives for developers; the fate of people who had to undergo demolition for the sake of new construction; land ownership; and the role of municipal authorities in the construction projects.

Responding to the questions and comments, the Minister said that to achieve quality control, a national home-builders registration council had been created. Drawing from other countries’ experiences, the country created its own model to achieve quality construction. Legislation had been passed to address that problem. Consumers provided with subsidized housing could write to the department of national housing and to the provincial housing department, which had to make sure that the Council received that information. The people responsible for the flaws were then contacted. A national database existed for that purpose, and penalties were applied to the builders, who did not respond to complaints.

The guidelines attached to contracts with developers specified what was expected from them, she added. A national organization of builders was assisting the Government in monitoring the products. Regarding the mechanisms created in the country to achieve large-scale construction, she said that the Government’s multi-pronged approach involved local authorities, business representatives and the private sector in the creation of capacity in the country.

Having identified the areas of need, the Government provided training in those areas, she said. Access to loans remained a problem, for the banks were not ready to loan money to the poor. The national housing finance corporation however, was assisting the population in securing micro-loans. The needs of the rural population were being met through soft loans. Regarding slums, she said that the Government was directing funds from various departments towards integrated rural and urban development strategies, generating economic activities in the poor communities.

The Government promoted basic services in the communities that allocated land for construction. Abandoned buildings were being transformed into residential settlements. All the relevant Government departments were involved in the coordinated efforts to develop housing. Efforts were being made to prevent urban sprawl and to take into account the environmental factor. To "wean the poor" off government assistance, people were encouraged to find employment and save money.

In his concluding remarks, the facilitator Michel Delabarre, former Minister for Housing of France and Mayor of Dunkirk, said that housing construction was not solely the responsibility of governments. Local communities were partners in habitat development, as was the case in many countries. Food for thought had been provided by the statement that ideal housing could not be created from the start. It was necessary to implement a gradual approach. Various speakers had demonstrated that transfer of know-how and the development of skills were crucial. The problems of zoning and the risks of urban development had also been addressed. The renewal of cities and the refurbishing of abandoned and outdated buildings were important. The success of the South African programme was also due to the participation of women, and that should be commended.

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* The paper is available on the Conference Web site, although not as an official UN document. For further information contact: Diet Von Broembsen, Chief Director, Policy Planning Department of Housing, South Africa; tel: 27(12)421-1453; fax: 27(12)341-8993; e-mail: