Corruption, inequality, mismanagement, and most importantly, the rapid growth of informal settlements—are all testament to the city’s flawed housing system.

On the fateful morning of August 31, 2023 the City of Johannesburg was jolted awake by a harrowing inferno that engulfed a building at 80 Albert Street, claiming the lives of nearly 80 people. This tragic incident spotlighted the alarming reality of numerous hijacked buildings scattered across Johannesburg. These buildings often house the poorest of the poor and are typically overcrowded, unregulated and unsafe.

Though much of the discourse centred on hijacked buildings, it illuminated a more pressing concern – Johannesburg’s staggering housing backlog. Currently, the city faces a backlog of roughly 400 000 homes. With the current rate of delivering sitting at approximately 3 500 housing units per year, it would take the city 100 000 years to address the backlog.

While these figures are staggering, they barely scratch the surface of the problem. In 2022, former member of the mayoral committee (MMC) for human settlements, Mlungisi Mabaso, revealed that the backlog exceeded half a million when factoring in informal settlements and hostels.


Four facts about the housing backlog in Johannesburg. Graphic: Terri-Ann Brouwers

Although South Africa’s Constitution guarantees the right to access adequate housing for all, prioritising, “those living in extreme conditions of poverty, homelessness or intolerable housing,” the country’s social housing system remains deeply flawed.

In a nation grappling with a staggering 32.6% unemployment rate,  and where 18.3 million South Africans between the ages of 18-59 are living below the food poverty line, the social housing system mandates households to have a minimum income of R1 500 in order to qualify.

According to Stat SA’s General Household Survey (GHS) South Africa faces a severe dependence on social grants, with social grants constituting the second most significant source of income for households, accounting for 50.2%. Additionally, 20% of households suffer from food insecurity. These statistics raise a critical question: If millions of South Africans rely on social grants and live below the food poverty line, where are they expected to find the means to participate in social housing programmes?

When faced with a housing backlog of this magnitude, people are compelled to take matters into their own hands. This is precisely what numerous South Africans have done at various informal settlements across the city. Therefore, it is conceivable that the housing backlog is intricately connected to the emergence and rapid increase of informal settlements.

While the city lacks a formal definition for informal settlements, they operate under the following working definition: “An impoverished group of households who have illegally or without authority taken occupation of a parcel of land (with the land owned by the Council in the majority of cases) and who have created a shanty town of impoverished illegal residential structures built mostly from scrap material without provision made for essential services and which may or may not have a layout that is more or less formal in nature.”

In 2010, the city reported 180 informal settlements scattered throughout its various regions. Fast forward to 2023, and that number has surged to approximately 320 informal settlements citywide. This raises the question: What is being done to address the situation of those residing in these informal settlements?


The increase in informal settlements in Johannesburg over a 13 year period. Graphic: Terri-Ann Brouwers

Alexandra, Alex, Gomora

Situated across from Sandton, the wealthiest square mile in Africa, and separated only by the M1 freeway, lies the township of Alexandra also nicknamed Alex or Gomora. Upon observing this area, one is struck by the makeshift structures, known as shacks, and even more astonished by the high population density. Hundreds of thousands of people have been residing in this informal settlement for many years. They have turned to this option while waiting to be provided housing by the City of Johannesburg, with some having been on the waiting list for nearly 50 years.

Ward councillor Floyd Ngwenya represents ward 107 in Alexandra and states that the settlement is hugely overpopulated. “When we look at the books Alex was supposed to have at least 60 000 thousand people staying in Alex, but we are [almost] a million now,” said Ngwenya. It is estimated that Alex currently has roughly 700 000 residents. Alexandra is clearly in urgent need of social housing, but not much has been done to address this issue.

Mabaso told Wits Vuvuzela that, “The backlog in fact started in 1996, in fact prior to 1996 because there are people with B forms that have [still] not been allocated [homes].”

When questioned about when he applied for social housing, Modise Christopher Bosielo (55) an Alex resident and father of three said, “I don’t remember [exactly] when, but it’s about twenty years.”

To add insult to injury, Boiselo and his wife are both unemployed and, and in his words, ‘”struggling to make ends meet”. However, he is aware that besides the housing backlog, he and his wife do not qualify for the existing social housing programmes due to not meeting the financial requirements.

While residents wait to be formally housed, their current living conditions are deplorable.

“Living conditions, I can describe it as the most challenging and I think for obvious reasons,” says Mabaso. He continues “They do not have proper houses; they are living in temporal structures that get affected in whatever condition of the weather. If it’s heavy raining it gets flooded and if it’s too hot, then you can’t stay inside. Above that there are no proper basic services that are provided. I mean all the services, the provision is on [a] temporal basis, the electrification, water, you know there is not proper sanitation.”

A Missed Opportunity – Alexandra Renewal Project

Despite the grim situation, policies and programmes have been implemented over the years to address housing issues in Alexandra. One of the programmes implemented was the Alexandra Renewal Project (ARP). The ARP, initiated by the national government in 2001, and received a budget of R1.3 billion. Its purpose was to enhance the “physical, social, and economic environment of Alexandra.” A key goal was to augment housing and reduce population density in the area. The question is whether it has delivered on its intended promise, and the answer is no.

This resulted in what was termed the #TotalShutDownofAlex protests in August and July 2019. Residents of Alexandra mobilized in protest against the lack of service delivery in their community, specifically emphasizing the acute housing shortage. Subsequently, a collaborative investigation conducted by the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) and the Public Protector was undertaken to address the myriad issues raised by the protestors. A pivotal aspect of this investigation focused on scrutinizing the management of funds allocated to the ARP.

The investigative team gathered submissions from numerous Alexandra residents. Many of them contended that the total funds allocated for housing under ARP were unaccounted for by the relevant government authorities. Residents of Alexandra further asserted that despite substantial spending under ARP, the housing outcomes in their area were disproportionately inadequate.

A submission presented by the Auditor-General of South Africa (AGSA) to the investigation team underscored the numerous gaps during the audit of the ARP. The AGSA noted inadequate project planning and a lack of proper documentation for project assessment. Moreover, the individual projects within the ARP were not efficiently executed and supervised. Due to a lack of documentation submitted by ARP, AGSA could also not verify if the funds allocated to the ARP were exclusively used for the project.  

Further submissions were made by the Group Forensic Investigation Services of the city of Johannesburg and they highlighted the following:

(a) Evidence of criminality, conflicts of interest on the part of certain service providers

(b) That the ARP management was marked by procurement fraud, post facto approvals, irregular awards, advance payments, unauthorised expenditure, fruitless and wasteful expenditure of up to R40 million;

(c) Projects not optimally managed thereby leading to poor work quality, late delivery of projects, project overruns;

(d) Tender and contractual disputes where contractors defaulted, filed for insolvency, contract terminated and court challenges, etc.

A Sector Vulnerable to Corruption

Wits Vuvuzela spoke to Marie Huchzermeyer who is an associate professor at the Wits School of Architecture and Planning and has done extensive research on informal settlements within the City of Johannesburg. Huchzermeyer says, “In the housing sector there’s long been a discussion about the RDP housing system not being fair and not being a good way of government spending its money, although it must also be recognised that at least the government is doing something, it does have a housing programme, it is rolling and it is allocating budget to it, but because it’s allocating such a lot of budget to housing, housing is also the most vulnerable to corruption.”

She also says that detecting corruption in this sector is challenging. “There are so many housing projects that are incomplete, where contractors have disappeared, and whether its corruption or whether its poor project management, budgets not being properly planned for and allocated, the capacity to actually deliver housing seems to be very fragile at the moment,” says Huchzermeyer.

The level of corruption is not lost on the residents of Alex and other informal settlements. “They know that the allocation processes are so fraud that when a housing project gets built politicians somehow interfere in the allocation of units and the people that were supposed to benefit from them don’t,” says Huchzermeyer.

“With corruption, it’s a reality, we cannot run away from it, and I think that’s the conundrum that the sector is facing,” says former human settlement MMC Mabaso.

He continues “I can tell you; you have a cartel in the construction [industry] that is operating, taking charge of the budget, and not delivering the good and the quality work that is expected. So, people are interested in the sector because you know you get rich quicker when you are a developer and that’s where their area of interest is actually at.” He says that it is the main challenge that is hindering the performance of the department.

While there appears to be significant mismanagement in the city’s housing sector, specifically Alex, the key question is what actions the city is taking to address this issue and whether those actions are enough.

Speaking on actions taken by the city Councillor Floyd told Wits Vuvuzela: “Currently the city of Johannesburg has implemented a project called UISP which is [the] Upgrading of Informal Settlement Programmes. That programme aims to identify informal settlements around Johannesburg and try and formalise those settlements within the spaces they are currently in. My ward with the informal settlements that we have, we have consultation meetings with residents of those informal settlements to say [ask] what is the best way you [the residents] think the government can assist you.”

A graphic detailing what a UISP is and the four phases of a UISP. Graphic: Terri-Ann Brouwers

Mabaso’s sentiments are that the city has not done enough. “The city has not done enough to address the housing backlog and the informal settlements; we have not done enough,” he says.

Mabaso says while grants are in place to address informal settlements they are not being used correctly. “If you look at the performance of the city now, I can tell you they are not spending the grants [on] the programmes they should be spending them [on].”

He also highlights the alarming fact that construction has not commenced on recent housing projects that were implemented. He explains that this is due to the city’s capital budget being allocated to projects that were started years ago.

“There are no construction of houses in the mega project that we are currently implementing so, every expenditure that is on our capital budget now is for the work that started [a] long time ago, so there are no new developments that are taking place. I know there is one that will be launched that we started three years ago, so the city has not really done enough.”

Over the years, various policies and programs have been implemented, whether they have been successful or not, to address the city’s housing needs. Changes have certainly taken place; however, Huchzermeyer says, “What hasn’t changed is the need for people to resort to informal settlements.”

FEATURED IMAGE: Seated on a bench, three friends gaze out over the landscape they call home—Alexandra. Photo: Terri-Ann Brouwers