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Is housing the answer?
stepSA research might shed new light on complex migration issues

Building on what Makgetla & Levin (2016) have put forward in a comprehensive new working paper from TIPS on the housing/ migration question on the platinum mines, stepSA’s work can perhaps contribute some tentative initial findings. Findings so far, from the project's on-going research into migration and housing in Rustenburg, Madibeng and Lephalale, may give grounds for looking again at the role of housing and services in framing the options for the platinum mining workforce, in terms of the Presidential Initiative for the distressed mining towns (2013).

To observers, the example of the workforce on the platinum mines living in shack settlements and low-quality informal housing is disturbing, and calls for a response; but the migration situation on the ground is unusual, and not simple. At the same time, the bottom has fallen out of the platinum market, job numbers are dropping, and massive further losses are expected.

The new TIPS paper even-handedly refrains from defining precise answers to how to de-fuse the potential for violent confrontation on the mining belt: the TIPS analysis lays greater emphasis on improving the quality of public services for the informal areas. Both the TIPS document (2016) and the Khulumani Support Group report (2015) tacitly accept that for the platinum miners themselves, housing quality may not be the first issue.

The migration question goes deeper - it's a question of permanent commitment to the area by the migrant and the household. This means deciding to go from a temporary housing dispensation – which for the migrants is ad hoc, without commitment, and therefore to some extent acceptable if the short-term accommodation is casual and/or low-quality – to permanency and the long term. Permanent housing binds the household's future plans, pulling in household investment in the housing unit as the family's key asset. Decent quality is the key need.

Facing a spreading finance crisis across the public and private sectors, the major actors on the Platinum Belt - the municipalities, the mines, and the Royal Bafokeng traditional authorities, and also the provinces and national departments - are not now able to deliver mass housing. It looks like decent permanent housing for Bojanala will have to be self-investment, owner-built, in line with the probable new direction of the national housing policy for individual housing units. Nearly all underground platinum miners are in-migrants: the question is what share of the migrant mineworker population wants permanent housing, which ones these will be, and where on the ground they want it.

Migration has flooded into Bojanala over the past 20 years, and the district municipality has probably had the highest income levels in South Africa for its informal population (stepSA 2014). Simultaneously, it is a very difficult destination for migration. The indigenous communities own most of the district’s land and hold significant power, but deeply fear loss of resources and feel very negatively toward in-migration; a large share of the mineworkers are on fragile temporary contracts, and job losses are mounting. Major mining houses are selling up and leaving South Africa. A major demographic event may be about to happen.

Nation-wide, perhaps half or more of the rural households in the old apartheid homelands may not want to migrate out of their home communities (see Cross, 2014 for SACN). Assuming that all migrants should be seen as permanent residents of their work destination (Makgetla & Levin 2016) may be unrealistic; it preempts the household decision to migrate permanently to the often-violent Platinum Belt as insecure strangers, or else to stay rural-rooted, well-networked and more secure in peaceful home communities. At present, the TIPS and Khulumani reports and the stepSA early findings all agree that miners’ households are actively building their own permanent housing in rural home communities. The following can apply:

  1. The demand for permanent housing units needs to be estimated, and not assumed to mean the whole workforce – stepSA’s migration modelling is now in the pipeline and will be available by mid-year, and will help to metricate and spatially locate the need for site and service initiatives to go onto suitable private land purchases, in liaison with the HDA.
  2. The need that perhaps requires most immediate attention is for decent temporary housing units. This question is difficult – shortage of public or private subsidization funding, plus workers’ preferences for spending as little as possible on rents so as to build up household savings and accumulation, suggest that temporary housing will remain largely in the informal sector, effectively outside formal standardization.

For better temporary housing, incentives will be needed, based on a strong grasp of the constraints around housing choice and migration on the platinum mines; the TIPS authors’ emphasis on improving the public-goods infrastructure – roads, schools, and related delivery around the Platinum Belt informal settlements – is highly relevant here.

stepSA (2014) findings show that backyard informal housing quality tends to improve spontaneously in upgraded shack areas where the semi-formal housing market operates, and high in-migration drives market demand to rapidly increase the value of permanent units. This principle implies recognizing the differentiation of demand inside the mining workforce. Any shack upgrading initiative will improve temporary housing supply through enabling backyard densification, but needs to balance against the need to maintain a well-serviced but low-priced informal settlement presence in the area in order to serve miners at the bottom of the income ladder. Temporary-contract workers in particular may feel unable to commit their thin resources to temporary housing which is long-term unproductive for the household (cf Piketty 2014). The TIPS recommendation of infrastructure enhancement will also be likely to result in some degree of de facto informal-housing quality improvement for the settlements affected. The same would hold for site and service areas which support decent-quality owner-built housing with backyard units – both, as well as out-migration, would lift relative supply and put downward pressure on present inflated rent levels, enabling better housing for the same expenditure.

A possible intermediate step, linked to the new housing policy, might be to consider locating both site and service areas and rent-to-buy basic small flats as part of any new catalytic project/ megaproject/ new-city initiatives which might be developed on the Platinum Belt, for which the national state would need to assist the cash-strapped municipalities in Rustenburg and Madibeng.

For more information contact:

Catherine Cross (HSRC),
Catherine Ndinda (HSRC),

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