Suzanne Smit

Conceptualising slum in an urban African context

The urban age is unfolding, with more than half of the world population now living in cities and urbanisation set to increase by a further 2.5 billion people by the year 2050ii,iii. This situation places excessive strain on cities to plan for and manage the increase in urbanites and their demand for housing, employment and access to basic infrastructure and services; a situation that is becoming vastly untenable for many cities, particularly those in the developing world. Most urban economies in developing countries are unable to meet these basic needs, leading to the emergence of slums or informal settlementsiv.

Slums are generally defined and analysed along various dimensions including: (i) physical characteristics – as pertaining to housing typology, access to services and infrastructure; (ii) social characteristics based on income, employment and economic activity; and (iii) legal characteristics related to land ownership and adherence to planning regulationsv, vi,viii. Notably, these definitions do not consider access to electricity as a measure, which is problematic because about 60% of the population in sub-Saharan Africa lack electricityviii. Recent studies are also highlighting the role of electricity in meeting 15 out of the 15 Sustainable Development Goalsix. Using the conventional categorization, slums are conceptualised to fluctuate between Formal and Informal, Legal and Illegal, and Planned and Unplanned, as depicted in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Slum types based on conventional categorisation.

It should be noted that settlement types are not static and may evolve and/or devolve over time. Each settlement type may also be recognised as having a unique set of issues that need to be addressed, thereby creating a framework for deeper analysis of the different slum types and particularly as related to the political context in which they exist viii. For example, the emergence of slums in South Africa is closely tied to the social and political history of the nationx, xi, xii. Furthermore, in considering the political context of South Africa, another category of description emerges, related to the notion of Legitimacy/Illegitimacy.

Figure 2: South African typology of settlements.

Informality should be understood as produced by the state itself through its legal and planning apparatus which determine what is informal or not, who is deserving or not vii. Legitimacy here therefore highlights the complex political struggle associated with recognition by state and as negated through the implementation of technical solutions that do not address socio-political issues. The issue of legitimacy is used to indicate the possible stance taken by formal or government entities based on the provision of infrastructure and level of legal compliance.

Although useful for recognising the physical, infrastructural and legal dimensions of slums, the typology of settlement types should not be employed as the sole basis for understanding slums, but rather as a starting point from which further analysis, including the metabolic dimension, may be applied.


i. This vignette is based on work stemming from Suzanne Smit’s PhD and is an extract from the published paper: Smit, S., Musango, J.K., Kovacic, Z., & Brent, A.C. 2017. Conceptualising slum in an urban African context. Cities, 62:107-119.
ii. UN-DESA (United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs) 2014. World urbanization prospects: The 2014 revision. Accessed 28 March 2016 from:
iii. UN-Habitat (United Nations – Human Settlements Programme) 2015. Habitat III: Issue paper 22 – Informal settlements (non edited version 2.0). Paper produced for the UN conference on housing and sustainable urban development, held October 2016. Paper produced in New York, May 2015. Accessed 10 March 2016 from:
iv. UN-Habitat (United Nations – Human Settlements Programme). 2010. The challenge of slums. Global report on Human settlements: revised and updated version (April, 2010) Accessed 8 February 2016, from
v. Srinivas, H. 2015. Defining squatter settlements. GDRC research output E-036. Kobe, Japan: Global Development Research Center Accessed 9 February 2016 from
vi. Turok, I. 2015. Upgrade informal settlements: South Africa. New Agenda: South African Journal of Social and Economic Policy. 2015: 11–15.
vii. Roy, A. 2005. Urban informality: Toward an epistemology of planning. Journal of the American Planning Association, 71(2), 147–158.
viii. IEA (International Energy Agency). 2015. World energy outlook. Accessed 14 September 2016 from:
ix. Schwerhoff, G., & Sy, M. 2016. Financing renewable energy in Africa – Key challenge of the sustainable development goals. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews. [n Press].
x. Hunter, M., & Posel, D. 2012. Here to work: The socioeconomic characteristics of informal dwellers in post-apartheid South Africa. Environment and Urbanization, 24: 285–304.
xi. Harrison, P. 1992. The policies and politics of informal settlement in South Africa: A historical perspective. Africa Insight, 22(1): 14–22.
xii. Urban Foundation (South Africa). 1991. Informal housing: Urban debate 2010. Braamfontein: Urban Foundation.