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Open Society Foundations

The property relations of a city in South Africa are a phenomenon that has its roots on the colonial interruption of our history and they, today, affect the political economy of higher education generally and the living experiences of students in particular. The fact that universities, old and new, are buildings with a physical address stationed in cities, they are, therefore, not immune from the overall economic challenges facing the nation and how these structurally impact the daily life of a people. 

This article will attempt to cover this analysis through three themes namely: (1) The land and housing history of South Africa, (2) The development of housing settlements under neoliberalism, and (3) The impact of urban property relations on higher education and student accommodation.

The land and housing history of South Africa

A city in South Africa is a product of the centralisation and convenience of production enveloped by a racialised capitalist project of social control and massive migration of proletariased Black labour. The white apartheid government formalised its pseudo city development project with the introduction of the Group Areas Act in the 1950s.

This act determined the residential address of a person under apartheid according to skin colour. Whites lived in the urban city centre with large volumes of land and backyard houses, closer to the beachfront and places of work. Blacks were cornered in the congested townships that are stationed at the outskirts of the city in matchbox houses, far away from all sorts of economic activity.

The settlement of Blacks in the townships outside cities was as a result of the violent dispossession of 90 percent of their land by armed white minority colonisers over centuries of frontier wars. This violent crime was followed by its formalisation and legitimisation through the 1913 Land Act. Being in possession of the remaining 10 percent of the infertile land, Black people could no longer sustain their ordinary way of life, which was to socially, spiritually, and economically live off the land. In other words, the land dispossession that Black people suffered was also the destruction of their intellectual property.

They were pushed down into deep levels of poverty and humiliation. What remained, as their remaining source of survival was to sell their labour power to the white coloniser. The white coloniser stationed his economy in the cities of this country. Therefore, the life of “going to work” for Black people began. Black people, in their numerical majority, became cheap migrant labour at the disposal of the white minority colonisers. With the Group Areas Act intact coupled with the poverty wages that Black people received, they had to stay in townships that are at the outskirts of the city whilst white people lived in the city. The unemployed Black people were imprisoned further away from the economic city in the rural areas of the former Bantustans. 

The development of housing settlements under neoliberalism

With the white occupation of urban land and the entire 90 percent in the country overall, they had the autonomy to set a racist beginning underpinned by the neoliberal European market fundamentalism. As is the case in classical European economics, land became a factor of production for the market. Land occupation, land ownership, land usage and control became a private commodity. As Oyeronke Oyewumi puts it, “another landmark of European penetration of indigenous societies”, was “the commercialisation of land”, whereby “land became a commodity to be bought and sold”. Nomalanga Mkhize adds, “since land under a neoliberal economy is used to utilise other economic activities such as shelter, economic development, public transport, recreational facilities and so on, the value of that land becomes as costly as the economic activities taking place on it”.

The intersection of a neoliberal market valuation of land, racially controlled patterns of housing and urban settlement, land dispossession and forced labour, and the effects of social control in the apartheid city all resulted in a distorted form of urbanisation our South African cities. Urban settlement in South Africa did not develop as an authentic form of a community emerging alongside its people centred economy for the enhancement of a neighbourhood of working families. Instead, the South African city developed out of land dispossession, racial segregation, migrant Black labour and the recycling of economic privileges for the white minority. This is at the centre of the neoliberal management of settlement spaces in the urban areas of South Africa until today, characterised by the over pricing of property in order to keep it exclusively in the hands of white people. Patrick Bond refers to this drivel as “class apartheid.”

The neoliberal economic management of land valuation in urban areas provides three contradictions for the democratic government. Firstly, the urban area has a limited infrastructure that was built to accommodate the livelihood of the white minority it was intended to serve under apartheid. Any attempt to stretch the resources of the urban area to accommodate the democratic Black majority and the general increase of the population across all races brings a strain to the existing infrastructure of the city. As a result, in order to grow the infrastructure of the city, the government is required to maintain the neoliberal template wherein large volumes of public resources must be invested into the development of new infrastructure that must be procured from the private sector at a profit. When the government neglects this responsibility, or decides to prioritise other crucial areas of human development, the excluded Black citizens get “left to fend for themselves, shack settlements mushroom all over the country and the question of unplanned urbanisation perpetuates itself”.

Secondly, Statistics South Africa in 2018 revealed that Black people in the townships of South Africa are faced with an unemployment rate of 56 percent. The overwhelming majority of those who do have work earn poverty wages as was the case under apartheid. For the local government of a city to maintain a decent budgetary framework to deliver services to citizens and govern adequately, it requires property owners to pay their monthly municipal rates consistently. The socio-economic conditions of the Black majority make it impossible for them to honour this public commitment whilst those who are based in the urban centre with decent employment are able to pay. As a result, the local government generally and the city in particular “begins to politically and culturally belong to those who materially take care of it”.

Thirdly, land in urban areas is privately owned as endorsed in section 25 of the South African constitution.  This means, therefore, that when the government wants to build social houses for the workers and the poor inside the city, it must seek to buy such land from its owner at a market value using the limited taxpayers’ resources. Under the current policy frameworks of government, this can only materialise when the seller of such land is willing to sell. Having the market value of land being immensely expensive, the government resources being limited, and the inherent refusal of the status quo to handover any form of economic power, it makes it impossible for the democratic government to transform the settlement patterns of the urban area.

This is at the centre of the current housing situation facing the government of the Black majority whereby houses built for the wretched of the earth by their own government are still small and are stationed far away from the city centre where land is valueless as was the case under apartheid. This neoliberal contradiction flies in the face of the promise of freedom. The people thought that freedom meant a redress of all social ills, the creation of a better life for all, and, in particular, a comprehensive revolution of how people stay and experience the quality of life in an urban area. However, this is not the case as the property relations under apartheid are still the same property relations we have under what we call a democracy. All these factors have one thing in common: a living experience for the Black majority that is demeaning and humiliating.

The impact of urban property relations on higher education and student accommodation

Increased access to higher education in South Africa post-1994 has created an infrastructure crisis in the former white minority institutions. In particular, there has been an evident demand for student accommodation across all institutions of higher learning in the land. With on-campus housing accommodation being limited, there has been a massive growth of the off-campus student accommodation component in universities. The Department of Higher Education and Training revels that the overwhelming majority of students enrolled in South African universities reside in off-campus residences, which are spread across the cities of South Africa.

The historical property relations of the cities impact the structure of each institution’s higher education system. Property relations of the city determine where a particular student will stay in the city and the quality of life that student will have in their university career. Property relations of the city determine the fees structure of the university; they impact its budgetary framework, its key priorities, and the overall political economy of the institution. Universities are built in the urban centre of the city where land is rated as being highly expensive by market forces. Universities as physical buildings and the education they offer are a service that takes place in close proximity to the market economy of the city. Universities are also employers of the labour power that is settled in the city.

It is evident, therefore, that fees charged by student residences that are privately owned and closer to the university will be more expensive than any other type of accommodation located somewhere else in the city. In the case of Port Elizabeth, the Summerstrand area offers exorbitant fees that students must pay to be in close proximity to the Nelson Mandela University campuses that are based in the mentioned suburb. Students from privileged families are able to afford fees charged in the Summerstrand area, they get to be closer to the university campus and spend less time traveling across the university to arrive for their classes and social activities. These students get to be academically and socially integrated into the university easier and they have a fulfilling living and learning experience as students. They can walk to the university campus and they have access to its resources. In addition, they have access to a quality service that the local government has to offer such as good infrastructure, security and close proximity to food outlets and entertainment areas.   

On the other hand, government bursaries and scholarships cannot afford to pay fees in private properties that are at a close proximity to the university where the value of land and rent is costly. Instead, government funding would rather pay low monthly rates of rent for student accommodation that is further from the university in an area that has a cheap value of land and rent in order to cushion a larger quantity of students. In the case of Port Elizabeth, over 500 poor Black students funded by the National Student Financial Aid Scheme stay in a single and large property that was formerly used as factory that is in Korsten Township. This property is approximately 20km from the Summerstrand campuses of Nelson Mandela University and students spend over 30 minutes on transport twice a day travelling to and from the university using the ascribed bus shuttle daily that is procured from a private company, which offers the service at a profit.

This student accommodation conundrum also envelops the government apparatus and its key priorities. A municipality at a local government level relies on generating municipal rates from student residences for its financial sustainability from the portion of the rent charged by landlords. This rent is expected to be financed by student bursaries and loans controlled by the national government. As a result, due to the high rentals charged in the municipal jurisdiction, the national government is compelled to maximise the stretch of its resources to as many students as possible who are in need by providing financial aid to those students who will be staying in cheap areas of the city that are far from the university, such as North End. This practice comes at the detriment of the quality of living and learning for the students cornered, particularly the poor, whom are a government priority in terms of graduation throughput and a university priority as far as student retention is concerned.

With off-campus residences stationed at a distance from the university campus and being characterised by limited safety and security measures, such shortfalls invite the university and government to attempt availing their limited resources to cushion the social capital of students in the form of transport, meals, and bursaries to name a few. Initially, universities are not conceptualised as housing entities but rather they are mainly concerned with the learning project. Therefore, the provision of student housing tends to be a neglected issue that seems to catch South African universities and government unprepared.

This article has established that the land question does affect the system of higher education. It remains uncertain as to whether or not the #FeesMustFall campaign did conceptualise that property relations of a city resemble the fees structure of a university, shape the overall political economy of higher education and affect the living and learning experiences of students. Universities cannot be moved from the urban centre where land is deemed expensive by market forces but rather what can be done by the state is to have an equitable intervention on property values that are in university suburbs to have them re-zoned for public purpose. Higher education is a social justice instrument for the health of South Africa’s democratic project and available mechanisms for the state to transform urban land property relations for the benefit of the poor and the students for the greater good of the country, even if it would mean that such urban land must be expropriated.  


* Pedro Mzileni is Research Chair on Critical Studies in Higher Education Transformation at Nelson Mandela University. He writes in his personal capacity.