The National Upgrading Support Program: Securing South Africa's Urban Future

December 16, 2011

  • The National Upgrading Support Program aims to close the “urban divide” created by apartheid, which left 10 million ethnic groups living in inhumane conditions
  • The Reconstruction Development Program delivered one million new houses in five years, a target met by 2001
  • More than one million families are still living in substandard housing areas, which is being addressed by a more comprehensive program that moves beyond providing housing

PRETORIA, December 16, 2011 -- South Africa faces the persistent challenge of spatial segregation, a legacy of apartheid. The National Upgrading Support Program (NUSP) began as a concerted initiative to improve the social, economic, environmental, and physical conditions in informal settlements, and to tackle urban poverty.

"Addressing the inequities spawned by apartheid-era urban policies is a key objective of the National Upgrading Support Program," said Ruth Kagia, World Bank Country Director for South Africa. "The World Bank is pleased to partner with the Government of South Africa in the important area of sustainable urban development that is more inclusive for the benefit of all South Africans."

During apartheid, urban policy, particularly housing, was used as an effective instrument to separate racial groups, limit economic opportunity and perpetuate the blight of racial discrimination. This process played out in South African towns and cities, where a small minority had full control of and access to the best urban services, infrastructure, and land titling in the “formal city,” while the majority black South Africans and other ethnic groups were confined to inhumane conditions in “shantytowns” and “townships.” By 1994 when apartheid fell, about 10 million South Africans were living in substandard shelters, roughly 16 percent of the total South African population.

Addressing this “urban divide” was and remains a core policy of successive post-apartheid governments. In 1994, the African National Congress prepared the Reconstruction and Development Program (RDP) which aimed to deliver one million houses in five years.

The one million target had been met by 2001, mainly through a massive subsidy program which produced low-cost standardized “RDP” housing units throughout the country.

“The national housing policy emerged as a political powerhouse of the new, democratic Government of South Africa,” said David DeGroot, a NUSP pioneer who took part in the intense debates on housing policy during the early 1990s.

“It was backed by sizeable investments nearing $6 billion.” (approximately ZAR 44 billion since then.)

However, the urban divide in South Africa has proved to be long-lasting. By 2010, despite having one of the largest public housing delivered programs in the world, South Africa’s housing deficit has grown to 2.1 million households, while the number of informal settlements has skyrocketed to more than 2.600 sites.

In effect, and in retrospect, there is a growing understanding that despite the very real improvements in individual living conditions, the RDP housing program has actually reinforced apartheid-era spatial segregation by consigning the newly-housed poor to the urban margins.

Today, there remain more than one million urban poor families living in simple shacks in informal settlements, with none or temporary basic infrastructure. Many of them have waited 10-15 years for the government to allocate a RDP house to them.

“This reality contrasts diametrically with the vibrant neighborhoods throughout Asia and Latin America where government policies have accepted the reality of informal settlements and public efforts have focused on supporting and guiding their consolidation to enable low-income communities to integrate fully into urban fabric, while simultaneously addressing structural problems so as to better manage future growth of cities,” said André Herzog, Senior Urban Specialist at the World Bank Institute and NUSP Task Team Leader.

Policy makers and urban practitioners agreed that the national housing approach to informal settlements was unsustainable, which led the National Department of Housing (later renamed as Department of Human Settlements) to formulate the National Upgrading Support Program (NUSP). In April 2008, the Ministry entered into a formal partnership with Cities Alliance and the World Bank Institute to promote more flexible and responsive policy and practical approaches to upgrade informal settlements.

The NUSP is being established within the Department of Human Settlements, which demonstrates a clear commitment to a more comprehensive response to the issue of human settlements, moving beyond the traditional provision of subsidy houses. The NUSP is now providing direct support in policy refinement and upgrading initiatives.

In April 2010 the President and the Minister for Sustainable Human Settlements signed the Performance Agreement with fine-tuned housing policy in South Africa in terms of instruments, delivery mechanisms and capacity. This represented a major step forward, signaling the combined commitment of the three spheres of government to the target of upgrading basic infrastructure, providing adequate services, and ensuring tenure security to 400,000 households living in well-located informal settlements by 2014, backed by a financial allocation of ZAR 22 billion (approx. USD 3 billion) in the 2011-14 fiscal period.

“The explicit inclusion of the NUSP in the Performance Agreement as a conduit to achieve this target gave the highest political validity to the program,” said Steve Topham, NUSP Technical Team Leader.

“As the Hon. Tokyo Sexwale, National Minister of Human Settlements, announced in 2011, capacity building is a key output of the NUSP. The training programs, information support through the website and Resource Tool kit initiated under NUSP are the first of their kind capacity building initiatives for informal settlement upgrade not only in the context of South Africa, but most probably in Sub-Saharan Africa region as a whole.”

The South Africa National Development Plan Vision for 2030 was released on November 11, 2011, which also emphasized the importance of NUSP in making sure that all South Africans have access to urban services and economic opportunities to secure their lives and their urban futures.