An East London plan to move residents of an informal settlement to new housing replicates apartheid planning, and will push poor people even further into a poverty trap.

After living in the Orange Grove informal settlement of 1 300 households close to the centre of town for more than ten years, you are going to get a house: one of 4 000 houses on tiny 250-square metre sites 25 kilometres from town. There will be no piped water or sewerage, or a school, clinic, shops or jobs. Taking a taxi to town will cost R1 200 per month. Is that what you want?

The Buffalo City council says you do, just as the apartheid planners did. Certainly, you want a house for your family, but you are not sure that this is where you want it.

So how did this happen?

In 2010, the provincial Department of Human Settlements decided on its first ‘mega-project’, a rural ‘incremental housing upgrade’ –  even there were no houses to upgrade. Supposedly because no land was available within the Buffalo City metro urban edge, the department bought the 343 hectare Farm 862 ‘Boxwood’, for a sum of R3.4 million.

At some point, the rural plan for a relatively few large sites, livestock kraals, home gardens and commonage grazing became 4 000 tiny urban sites, with communal watertanks and toilets being anticipated some time in the future. A record of this decision, or who made it, is difficult to find between the municipality and the department. No record of the Orange Grove community opinion on the proposal is evident.

In May 2018, as an exigency item late at night, the Buffalo City Council approved a planning application from the department for township development, and for an amendment of the Spatial Development Framework (SDF). This, in spite of its own officials opposing it, as it contradicted national policy on spatial transformation, contradicted the metro’s own gazetted SDF ‘compact city’ policies, and failed to meet the principles of the Spatial Planning and Land Use Management Act of 2013 (SPLUMA) with which the Council was not compliant. Clearly the Council did not apply its mind, or provide reasons for ignoring its own officials. It was a political decision by the African National Congress-majority Council, for unknown reasons.

Because Buffalo City was not SPLUMA-compliant, the approval was made under the superseded Land Use Planning Ordinance of 1985. Consequently, there was no appeal structure in place, leaving any objections against the approval in a legal vacuum.

A condition of approval requiring affidavits from beneficiaries  to cover the absence of evidence of community support (reportedly obtained with SAPS assistance) was not met, so a letter of approval by the metro could not be issued. This should have stopped any development, but was ignored by human settlements officials and the developers, in exactly the same way as the Environmental Amendment and Appeal has been ignored. Neither the metro nor the Department of Environmental Affairs has taken any action to enforce the laws.

Buffalo City omitted to obtain the consent of the Minister of Agriculture, necessary under the Subdivision of Agricultural Land Act, or to rezone the land from agricultural to residential usage. Consequently, a general plan – which appears not to match the 4 000 intended sites – cannot be approved by the Surveyor-General or linked to the beneficiary list of the department itself. Yet again, the lack of an acceptable General Plan has been ignored.

The approval contradicted the city’s own SDF which, therefore, had to be amended. The public participation required for amendment was not only minimal, but amounted only to a misleading simultaneous advertisement. In effect, it abandoned the approved urban edge without saying so.

Physical site problems and consequent costs have been ignored. The geological report said: ‘This site is regarded as problematic from an engineering geological point of view. The major items taken into consideration include difficulty in excavations for services.’ So 4 000 VIP toilets must be sealed and, consequently, will need pumping out by tankers for transport to a distant sewage treatment plant. There is no provision for waste or greywater disposal.

The Council also reduced the area of Scientific Special Interest (SSI) intended to protect an endemic species, with no reason given. Erosion will clog the Gxulu River, wiping out the endemic Cape Rocky (an endangered fish species).  An amended Environmental Impact Assessment was undertaken in 2018-19 resulting in a new Record of Decision from the Department of Economic Development, Environmental Affairs and Tourism in July 2019 citing mitigating factors such as school environmental clubs to replace the SSI. An appeal to the MEC has not yet been answered.

The Department of Human Settlements will fund the houses with a Human Settlements  Development Grant (needing R600 million), while Buffalo City will fund roads, water and toilets with an Urban Settlements Development Grant (needing R140 million). Both are National Treasury grants. At present, the city has some funds on its integrated development plan budget for roads, but none for water or toilets.

There is no legal planning approval in place from Buffalo City, but department of housing settlement contractors (from Mpumalanga) are on site and the bulldozers are working. Letters of enquiry to relevant authorities receive no response.

This case illustrates the problems inherent in SPLUMA countrywide, now that municipalities are effectively a law unto themselves without oversight. In theory, the national Department of Rural Development and Land Reform, which promulgated the Act, is responsible for monitoring its implementation, but in practice this does not happen, especially because municipalities are responsible to the provincial departments of co-operative governance and traditional affairs, which have no authority over SPLUMA..

This project defies all national, provincial and municipal planning policies and principles; it is akin to apartheid planning, which pushed poor people even further into a poverty trap. It should be stopped, by political or legal or Treasury action. The planning approval should be taken on review on the grounds of the process followed, but also rejected for content on planning principles as recommended by Buffalo City’s own staff.

The biggest omission in the situation is a genuinely representative opinion from the Orange Grove community, and the biggest question is: who is benefiting?

Mike Coleman is a land, rural development and agricultural planning consultant based in the Eastern Cape. This article was commissioned by the SA Institute of Race Relations (IRR)

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the IRR.

If you like what you have just read, become a Friend of the IRR if you aren’t already one by SMSing your name to 32823 or clicking here. Each SMS costs R1.’ Terms & Conditions Apply.