News | City / Municipality / Region - Southern Africa - Commons / Social Infrastructure In the Shadow of the Stadium

Johannesburg’s ongoing housing and land battle 14 years after the World Cup



Shereza Sibanda,

Children playing in the Bertrams settlement. Photo: Jodi Bieber

Alongside well-maintained and secure buildings and blocks of flats in Johannesburg’s inner city, you will see dilapidated buildings and informal settlements. The housing crisis has become a battleground for housing rights and, in particular, the fight for secure, long-term tenancy, as well as access to basic services and the dignity of safe living spaces. These precarious, dangerous, and dehumanizing conditions are a daily reality for many residents.

Shereza Sibanda is the Executive Director of the Inner City Resource Centre in Johannesburg.

Thirty years after the end of apartheid, housing remains an unsolved issue in South Africa. The housing crisis has deepened nationally. A total of 2.4 million households were registered on the National Housing Needs Register in 2023. The late Michael Blake, a housing expert who worked for the International Labour Research Information Group and played a significant role in building the Housing Assembly in the Western Cape, estimated in 2017 that the actual figure for households awaiting registration was as high as 5.81 million. Moreover, 610,000 Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) houses have been classified as requiring demolition and reconstruction, while 1.5 million houses are in need of serious repairs.[1] Billions of South African rand have been spent on rebuilding and repairing the poor construction of RDP housing, and the programme itself is rife with corruption.

For many inner-city residents, the housing crisis worsened when South Africa hosted the FIFA World Cup in 2010. South Africa wanted to present itself to the world as a united rainbow nation. However, 14 years after the FIFA World Cup, many former residents of Johannesburg’s inner city who were evicted to make way for the erection of new buildings in the context of the World Cup are still fighting for the alternative housing facilities they were promised.

The Inner-City Resources Centre (ICRC) has been fighting for marginalized residents in the inner city of Johannesburg since 2005. It has strived to protect the rights of such residents to housing and basic services through legal support, mobilization, and advocacy.

The Johannesburg inner city has long been a focal point for discussions on urban regeneration, housing rights, and the socio-economic disparities plaguing South Africa’s urban landscapes. It represents a microcosm of the broader housing crisis facing urban South Africa, marked as by stark inequalities, overcrowded living conditions, and a persistent struggle for access to affordable housing.

The arrival of the World Cup in Johannesburg was heralded as a golden opportunity for urban renewal and international investment.

This crisis has been exacerbated by the historical context of apartheid-era spatial planning. Concretely, this has seen poor people from townships on the urban periphery moving deeper into the economic hub of the city itself. This has led to the flight of white residents and white capital, as well as rapid urbanization, entrenched economic disparities, and the continued failure of the South African government to address the housing crisis. The end result is that a significant portion of residents — the most vulnerable of the city’s population — live in precarious, unhealthy, dangerous, and even deadly conditions. The recent tragic fires in inner city buildings have reignited concerns about the living conditions and safety of Johannesburg’s poorer residents, underscoring a persistent crisis that demands urgent attention. Similar tragedies are certain to reoccur if the government does not provide low-income residents with safe and affordable housing.

In the year 2000, the preparations for the 2010 FIFA World Cup brought to the fore the tensions between urban development for international prestige and the fundamental needs of the city’s most vulnerable communities. The arrival of the World Cup in Johannesburg was heralded as a golden opportunity for urban renewal and international investment. However, preparations for this global spectacle were characterized by significant upheavals for the city’s poorer residents, particularly through evictions aimed at clearing areas deemed unsuitable for the international eye.

As the City of Johannesburg initiated evictions to clear the way for what was presented as urban renewal, many residents found themselves caught between promises of alternative accommodation and the harsh reality of eviction. Some were lured away with the promise of affordable housing, only to find themselves unable to afford the new rents or trapped in a cycle of displacement when the promised accommodation fell through.

One primary example that vividly illustrates the complexities surrounding housing rights and the struggle against displacement in Johannesburg's inner city is the suburb of Bertrams. Bertrams is located in the shadow of the Johannesburg Stadium and is home to approximately 150 families.

An attempt was made to evict occupiers who were living in the Bertrams area around the Elis Park stadium, especially those in Berea and Gordon Roads. There was no compelling court order to evict them. Instead, the City of Johannesburg issued false promises such as cheaper rentals at Madollamoho in Joubert Park. Some of the occupiers agreed to move to Madollamoho but were quickly evicted, as they could not keep up with the rent.

The majority of them moved to the informal settlements in Booysens and Bekezela in Johannesburg’s inner city. Bekezela informal settlement houses approximately 900 families. Composed of migrants and locals alike, it is estimated that there are some 4,000 shacks in the Booysens settlement, housing mainly families and single women, most of whom are victims of forced evictions from previous accommodation. With many households headed by unemployed women, gender-based violence is far from uncommon nor, for that matter are shack fires.

Some occupiers at Bertrams — including the Bertrams Priority block — were unconvinced by promises of alternative accommodation and remained on their properties. The Priority block consists of six solid buildings that are home to approximately 100 families. Residents formed a representative committee to address challenges faced by the occupiers. That the democratically elected committee is composed mainly of women is unsurprising, given that most of the households have women at the helm. Despite their lack of proper water, sanitation, and electricity, the properties are well kept and repairs are paid for by contributions given to the committee by the occupiers. Like the residents of any building in the inner city, those living at the Priority Block always maintain a united front in reacting to threats, false promises, and eviction notices.

Events like this, which are extremely common in South Africa, have led to widespread distrust of offers for alternative accommodation.

By 2019, only a few buildings were still standing in Bertrams Priority Block, while others had already been barricaded. The Johannesburg Property Company (JPC) then moved to evict those who had returned or remained. This sparked an intervention by the ICRC, which facilitated a dialogue between residents and the JPC, with a view to firming up the latter’s promises of alternative accommodation.

In the course of the discussions, the JPC failed to prove that any alternative accommodation was available, which ultimately led to the collapse of the negotiation itself. Thereafter, the JPC refused to communicate any further with residents. It should be noted that the City of Johannesburg has never fulfilled its mandate to provide viable alternative accommodation. A number of residents, for example, were moved from Dinner Glass in Carr Street to Moth Building in Delvers Street. Though residents they have been there since 2008, the premises still lack basic services.

Events like this, which are extremely common in South Africa, have led to widespread distrust of offers for alternative accommodation. The ICRC continues to monitor the situation and assist residents in keeping their environments safe, clean, and, thus, worthy of continued occupation.

Stories of residents with whom the ICRC has worked for over 15 years echo the challenges faced by thousands of residents of Johannesburg's inner city. Mary (a pseudonym), who has lived in Bertrams Priority Block since 2000 and is a mother of five, supports her family by selling sweets and potato chips, a testament to the sort of activity that sustains many in the absence of formal employment. Her children are now of working age but continue to struggle with unemployment, a fact that reflects the broader issue of job scarcity and the increasingly precarious nature of work that primarily affects young people in these communities. Similarly, Miso (also a pseudonym), a mother of three who has resided in the same block since 1999, now relies on a pension that cannot even cover the rent of a room in a block of flats, which is indicative of the financial precarity experienced by many older residents. [2]

A snapshot of life in the Bertrams Priority Block.


  Photo: Jodi Bieber

Marked by long-term residence and a fight for survival within the confines of inadequate housing, their stories exemplify the resilience and resourcefulness of inner-city communities. These examples underscore not just the desire but also the need to remain in the inner city, close to public services and potential employment opportunities, despite the dire conditions of housing there. The living conditions of those described above reveal a critical gap in the housing market, i.e. a lack of affordable options for those without well-paying jobs.

That the city of Johannesburg has disconnected water and electricity from many buildings in a bid to force out occupiers has led to the degradation of much building stock. Many such buildings have long been abandoned by their owners, forcing occupiers to use illegal means for the provision of basic services or, at times, lighting dangerous fires in order to cook. The continuous disconnection of water and electricity, for example, has also contributed to furniture or other items catching fire in the building, with many such fires going unreported.

However, despite the colossal tragedy at 80 Albert Street — the worst residential fire in the history of South Africa — as well as the shock, trauma, pain, and outrage experienced by so many as a result, the government has yet to take adequate action. The survivors were given corrugated shacks as alternative accommodation in an unsafe area, while foreign African migrants were completely abandoned. Indeed, in a bid to deflect the failure of the state to address the housing crisis, African migrants have often been scapegoated by authorities and political leaders, a tactic that stokes exacerbates existing xenophobia.

The recent fires in inner city buildings, especially the 80 Albert Street fire, has brought the issue of unsafe housing conditions to the forefront. Illegal electrical connections, the use of unsafe heating sources, and overcrowded living conditions are symptomatic of the desperation and lack of viable housing options faced by many. Following the events at 80 Albert Street, six other buildings also went up in flames, although only two were covered in the media. The victims of the others have simply built shacks around the burned buildings.

The tragic, dehumanizing experiences of Miso and Mary are a stark reminder of the urgent need for meaningful communication between city authorities and the most vulnerable residents if sustainable solutions to the housing crisis are to be found.

In recent years, the City of Johannesburg has shifted its responsibility to private developers, hoping they would come up with some means of accommodating the poor.

The right to land and shelter is fundamental to any stable society and is, in fact, a constitutionally protected socio-economic right. The vast majority were denied the right to a place in the city during apartheid. The legacy of apartheid-based urban development — whereby African people were not allowed to own property in the city — has not been addressed. It is essential that the City of Johannesburg accept its responsibility to redress the legacies of apartheid as well as its responsibility to provide to everyone adequate housing that is free from class discrimination.

In 2017, the Inner-City Housing Implementation Plan (ICHIP) was adopted by the Johannesburg City Council. It avails of innovative partnerships with private developers and other inner city community members to focus on the poor and marginalized. One programme involves the construction and management of basic and very affordable rooms for rent that are administered by a municipal entity called the Johannesburg Social Housing Company. In spite of the name, however, the ICHIP has done very little in the way of implementation. Since the policy was adopted, there has been no mention of how many units will be built nor how it is that the unemployed will be accommodated. As such, the policy is not inclusive.

Generally speaking, the government employs inclusionary rhetoric with regards to the poor, yet the prevailing attitude in government circles belies a belief that the poor are little more than a nuisance to be shifted elsewhere. “Slums” are cleared from one area only to appear somewhere else.

In recent years, the City of Johannesburg has shifted its responsibility to private developers, hoping they would come up with some means of accommodating the poor. However, this abdication of responsibility — and the failures that followed — has resulted in further exclusion. The cycle of evictions and displacement continues.

As Johannesburg moves forward, the lessons from the World Cup and the ongoing struggles of its inner-city residents must inform a more inclusive and equitable vision for urban development. This vision must recognize the right to safe, affordable housing as foundational to the dignity and well-being of every citizen. It must ensure that the city’s future is built on the principles of justice and equality, rather than exclusion and disparity.

The ICRC and the urban poor are facing a structural shift. The neoliberal constitutional state does not express democracy through the resolute delivery of public services, which would include civic public participation, a participatory democracy whereby the creation of more organized civil society is encouraged and supported, and a fundamental practice of transparency and accountability. Instead, the state is consolidating its existing approach, which is embedded in the dictates of the market and completely divorced from people’s everyday lives. Fundamentally, the government cannot continue to move in this direction.

With the support of the ICRC, inner city residents will continue to struggle for social justice, dignity, and the right to a place in the city. They will continue to expose injustice and indignity while advancing and consolidating their plan of action. They will continue to create solidarity and apply pressure by challenging the city authorities to address this dire situation. As Assata Shakur put it: “Nobody in the world, nobody in history, has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people who were oppressing them.”

[1] Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) is a South African socio-economic policy, which among others provides subsidised housing. The houses are commonly referred to as RDP houses.

[2] Both Mary and Miso are pseudonyms.