Land Rights in the Township: Building Incremental Tenure in Cape Town, South Africa, 2009–2016


In 2009, South Africa’s second-most populous metropolitan area, Cape Town, adopted a new strategy to usher the rule of law into shantytowns that had sprung up on its outskirts, on municipal land. Without legal property rights, most of the residents of those communities were vulnerable to eviction and had access to neither municipal services nor home addresses they could use to obtain cell phone contracts or other basic goods. Lacking both the space to relocate households and the money to build enough new houses, the city partnered with a program called Violence Prevention through Urban Upgrading to pilot an in situ settlement upgrade that allowed people to remain in their homes. Through an incremental tenure approach, the city issued occupancy certificates that recognized residents’ rights to remain on the land, that protected against arbitrary eviction, and that laid the groundwork for eventual access to the services enjoyed by city residents living in legal housing. The pilot project focused on Monwabisi Park, a community of about 25,000 on the southeastern edge of Cape Town. Beginning with a full enumeration of land, structures, and occupants, the project helped construct a community register, issue occupancy certificates, and extend electric power throughout the area. By November 2016, the first phase of the project had been completed, and hundreds of residents visited the community registration office every month to update their details. Using their occupancy certificates, residents could obtain cell phones, register their children in schools, receive medication from the health department, and open furniture store accounts. However, the second phase of the project—rezoning and physically upgrading the settlement—stalled in late 2016, as Cape Town officials wrestled with the basic question of how to install water and sewerage infrastructure in situ without moving any households. Even with that pause, though, Monwabisi Park offered important lessons for other cities and countries about how to provide poorer, more-transient citizens greater stability and financial access.

Lessons Learned

  • In a complex urban environment, community-led surveying and enumeration cannot be rushed. Time is required to build trust with and among different groups in the community and ensure accuracy.
  • Projects whose greatest impact will only materialize in the future need broad support to survive political turnover. Emphasis on the long-term benefits of settlement upgrading can help reduce resistance from an incoming administration concerned about supporting an outgoing mayor’s pet project.
  • Visible administration—having the project team physically working in the settlement on a regular basis—was key to maintaining an organized tenure administration system.
  • Securing upfront agreement with city engineers on infrastructure installations plans is vital. Failure to approve a design plan after the program has launched frustrates residents and undermines the progress already made.
  • Taking steps to help new holders of occupancy certificates understand their rights and the consequences of off-registry transfers should be a component of every incremental tenure program.

Leon Schreiber drafted this case study with Professor Michael Barry of the University of Calgary based on interviews conducted in Cape Town and Johannesburg, in July and August 2016. Case published February 2017.

A 2017 workshop, Driving Change, Securing Tenure, profiled recent initiatives to strengthen tenure security and reform land registration systems in seven countries: South AfricaCanadaJamaica, Kyrgyzstan, Mozambique, Australia and Tanzania.

Watch the video of Kathryn Ewing - Director, Violence Prevention through Urban Upgrading

tenure security
sequencing reform
service delivery
informal settlement upgrading
enumeration surveys
occupancy certificates
land use planning
Focus Area(s)
City Management
Property Rights & Land
Critical Tasks
Land registration
Managing illegal or informal settlement
Core Challenge
Credibility (trust)
Dispute resolution (compliance)
Country of Reform
South Africa
Case Studies
Leon Schreiber