David McDonald

Southern African Migration Project

Migration Policy Series No. 5

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Housing for the urban poor is one of the biggest challenges for the South African government. With over three million people living in shacks or inadequate housing and with tens of thousands joining the ranks of the homeless every year, it could be decades before an acceptable level of housing for all South Africans is reached.

Adding to this crisis is a growing number of legal and undocumented migrants from other parts of the continent. Legal border crossings alone have increased fourfold since 1990 while the number of undocumented border crossings would appear to have increased dramatically. Many migrants are poor and in search of employment and housing in urban areas. This has the potential to add significant pressure on limited housing resources in South African cities.

The aim of this paper is twofold: first, to try to understand what, if anything, the South African government is doing about the issue of housing for foreign-born Africans living in the country; second, to understand better the attitudes of South African citizens and non-citizens on this issue of housing and what it could mean for housing and immigration policy.

Three informal and township communities from the Cape Town area served as case studies for this research and provided us with a concrete, albeit geographically limited, perspective on this important and politically sensitive policy area.

The first major finding of the study is that there are no clear policies on access to housing for non-citizens in South Africa. There are policy documents, constitutional clauses and international agreements which commit the South African government in various ways to "ensuring access to adequate housing for all persons living in the country", but these commitments are often inconsistent with one another and even contradictory when it comes to defining who is entitled to housing.

In terms of South African attitudes towards non-citizens, there would appear to be a very clear and consistent 60/40 split of opinion with 60% of people responding negatively to questions about access to housing and other basic services for non-citizens and 40% responding positively or neutrally.

Interestingly, there were no significant differences in attitude across age, gender, income or other important demographic variables, making it virtually impossible to develop any kind of attitudinal profile. There was, however, a marked absence of xenophobic comments about foreigners, challenging the popularly held belief that South African citizens are taking an increasingly antagonistic attitude to migrants of African origin. Non-citizens themselves are extremely ambiguous on the whole question of access to housing and are uncertain about what the future hold for them in terms of long-term accommodation. Although most of the non-South Africans interviewed have had a very positive experience in South Africa, and at least half of those interviewed plan to stay in the country for an extended period of time, none have any long-term plans for housing.

Perhaps it is premature to draw policy implications from this case study research, but three general observations can be made from the study: