1.1 What is this website all about? is a web tool developed to analyse, present and discuss informal settlement and backyarder improvement strategies of the eight cities in South Africa.

1.2 What do you want to achieve with this website?

We want to provide the public with a resource on informal settlement upgrading strategies. We also want to engage policy makers and government officials to embed a more transformative approach to providing services in informal settlements. For this reason we will be writing shorter analytical blogs on the topics covered by this research to pull attention to issues and solutions. Stay in touch with the Isandla Insights blog.

1.3 Who is behind, and what is your agenda?

Isandla Institute owns and operates this website. We act as a public interest think-tank with a primary focus on fostering just, equitable, sustainable and democratic urban settlements. At the core of our work is the goal of advancing the right to the city, only attainable when urban residents are able to exercise full citizenship and participate in planning and governance. Isandla Institute engages in dialogue, innovative research and advocacy interventions. Our Urban Land Programme seeks to contribute to land use planning and management systems that enhance the right to the city for current and future residents, with particular reference to spatial integration, social inclusion, poverty reduction, equity and redistribution, environmental sustainability and urban efficiency. Fore more about us, visit


2.1 What are informal settlements and why do they exist?

The United Nations define informal settlements as an area with one or more of the following five characteristics: 1) poor structural quality, 2) overcrowding, 3) inadequate access to safe water, 4) inadequate access to sanitation and other critical infrastructure, and 5) insecure residential / tenure status. The formation of informal settlements have a number of causes, such as poor and oppressive government policies, market failure, failure to meet housing demand, low investment in infrastructure, and ineffective urban planning and land use management. In South Africa, black South African were denied to own land or enjoy the benefits of cities and property ownership, and since the repeal of oppressive pass laws in the 1980s, there has been a rapid movement of people from rural areas (e.g. the former homelands) to cities. This rapid in-migration or urbanisation paired with inadequate housing supply and servicing of land has also contributed to the formation of informal settlements.

2.2. And backyard shacks; what’s that all about?

One significant trend in the 2011 census is that the number of households living in backyard dwellings increased by 55% during the previous decade, while the number living in free-standing shacks decreased by more than 120 000, according to analysis by the HSRC. Backyard shacks are quite something unique to South Africa, and they are rapidly expanding in some cities like Cape Town, Johannesburg and Ekurhuleni. A backyarder dwelling is an auxiliary dwelling erected by the owner or tenant of predominantly state-provided housing, such as inner city ex-labour housing and RDP/BNG housing. While the backyarder shack provides a rental income to the homeowner and contributes to densifying townships, very few city governments have programmes to improve services to backyarders.

2.3 What are appropriate responses by city governments to informal settlements?

Informal settlements did not receive much attention until 2004, when the Department of Housing (now called Human Settlements) published the Breaking New Ground strategy which called on government to address informal settlements more proactively. Even after new programmes such as Upgrading of Informal Settlements Programme (UISP) was included in the National Housing Code, local governments were slow to implement this programme. These days informal settlements are a top government priority, and new performance targets, financing options, and planning instruments exist. City governments are therefore expected to adopt city-wide approaches and strategies for firstly servicing informal settlements, and secondly planning forward to anticipate population growth. More detailed strategies around land, spatial planning, organisational capacity, and community participation is presented in the Data Index.

2.4 Help me understand other terms I am not familiar with.

Please check out our Key Terms page for easy to understand definitions of the key terms used.


3.1 I find the Data Index confusing. Can you explain what it is all about, please?

We present more than 40 indicators across five categories: 1) informal settlement upgrading strategies, 2) backyarder support plans, 3) forward planning and land, 4) progress to MTEF targets, and 5) empowerment and participation. Please see the Guide to Using the Index for more information.

3.2 What are your data sources?

We analised core municipal documentation to develop indicators presented in the Data Index. These documentations are uploaded each year to the website. Read more about the information sources, research methodology, and the limitations of this research.

3.3 Why are you focusing on city governments and not other local governments?

Good question. Firstly, more than 70% of informal settlements and backyarder shacks are located in cities. For this reason, National Treasury and other departments are allocating more funding to cities to service informal settlements. Secondly, there are 278 municipalities in South Africa divided in three categories: metropolitan, district and local. Focusing on metropolitan municipalities allows us to better gauge how cities are responding to more than 70% of informal settlements across the country.

3.4 I have an idea for an indicator you can collect data on. What now?

Thank you for your interest. Get in touch with us and discuss the indicator you have in mind. We will review core municipal documentation to see whether data is being collected. If there is a steady reporting steam common to all cities’ documentation, we have a green light! If not, let’s partner and engage key departments such as the City Support Programme of National Treasury and Department of Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation in embedding additional reporting requirements for municipal documentation.


4.1 I am a municipal official and I do not agree with the data presented for my city council. What can I do about this?

We present to the public what is contained in the core municipal documentation in the particular year (e.g. 2016/17 year). The documentations in question is the IDP, BEPP, SDBIP, MTREF Budgets and any other documents provided (e.g. annexures to the BEPP). It might be that there is information available not easily accessible to the public, that you might have access to. We ask of you to refer to the Guide to Using the Index where you will be able to amend the current data. Be sure to have all your references ready and we expect this information to be available in the public domain, considering the requirements for the compilation of core municipal documentation.

4.2 I am a NGO programme manager and I want to use the data to inform my programme design? Do you have any tips for me?

You are one of the user groups we had in mind! Firstly, the Index will allow you quickly gauge where cities are performing well and where improvements are needed. This will give you an idea of which issues to advocate for partnerships, improved policy development, and/or capacity development. Secondly, the Index will save you time by presenting analysis of core municipal documentation. You will be able to advocate from an evidence base. Thirdly, Isandla Insights will provide further resources to engage city governments on advancing a more progressive practice in the upgrading of informal settlements.

4.3 I am a Community Leader and we are active in an informal settlement upgrading project. How can this website help us?

You will notice where the city is performing well and where it needs improvement. The website contains information on community participation and what structures the city has in place to facilitate community involvement. Our eventual goal is to develop a self-diagnostic tool by which you can assess your own project. Such a self-assessment will be useful to you to see if your project is in line with principles of a progressive approach. The development of this tool has not commenced, and is subject to financing. We will inform you through the Isandla Insights blog page when this new feature is added.

4.4 I am a concerned resident and stumbled on this website after a friend shared it on social media. I am not families with these terms nor the purpose of this website. Can you help me understand?

This website is also for you. We want to raise the awareness of the general public to issues related to informal settlements. We hope that the website is easily navigated and have taken much time to do user testing and hearing about people’s experiences. If you struggle to understand terms, visit the Key Terms page. Or read the latest features on Isandla Insights. Or get in touch with us.