Urbanisation is the process in which the number of people living in cities increases compared with the number of people living in rural areas. A country is considered to be urbanised when over 50% of its population lives in urban places.

Amongst the first countries to become urbanized were Great Britain and some European countries. Their urbanisation was relatively slow, allowing governments time to plan and provide for the needs of increasing urban populations.

Urbanisation is most rapid in Third World countries, where the world's largest cities occur. Mexico City, the world's largest city, has a population of more than 18 million, estimated to grow to over 26 million people by the year 2000. Sao Paulo, Brazil, has more than 16 million people and will have 24 million in the year 2000.


Mexico 69%
Argentina 84%
Malaysia 38%
Mauritius 54%
Korea 64%
Brazil 73%
Algeria 43%
Poland 60%


The rate of urbanisation in South Africa has been very rapid since the 1950s. Today 57% (or 21 million) of all South Africans live in towns and cities, an average level of urbanisation for a Third World country. By the year 2010, 73% of our population will be urban - 43,7 million people! Rapid urbanisation brings with it many problems as it places huge demands on land, water, housing, transport and employment.

Not all people living in cities enjoy the same standard of living. Some live in grand houses with many rooms and plenty of ground, others live in modest houses on very small pieces of ground. Many urban people live in closely built shacks made of packing cases, sheets of plastic and corrugated iron.

Some urban people have a good supply of water and electricity and the waste from bathrooms and toilets goes directly into the city's sewers. Squatters, however, lack these benefits and are forced to use open drains and pit toilets. These can create health hazards.


In South Africa apartheid has made the problems of urbanisation more complex. For generations, urbanisation of black people was made difficult by forcing them to live in areas far from the main cities. Those areas were known as the Reserves, later called Bantustans, and then Homelands.

As employment opportunities remained in the "white" cities, many black people, mainly men, moved to the cities in search of work, leaving their families in the "homelands". Separation of families created many social problems. In addition, pass laws made it illegal for many black people to live in the white cities. Their illegal status made it impossible for them to rent a house so they often lived in a shack in the backyard of a friend.


With the lifting of racial restrictions on where people may live and work, many unemployed people in the homelands migrated to the major South African cities in search of work, bringing their families with them. The shortage of accommodation in cities has forced them to live in shack-towns or squatter camps on open land.

As migrant workers do not own land they often settle or squat on vacant land owned by somebody else. Although squatter settlements are seen to arise out of desperate need, the landowners are often unhappy that squatters are living on their land. Quite often conflicts arise. The state will have to make provision for future emergency housing for poor people.


Recent statistics illustrate the problem of rapid urbanisation facing South Africa. In the early 1980s there was one formal house for every 3,5 white people in South Africa, and only 1 formal house for every 43 black people. In 1989 Gauteng (the then PWV region) contained 412 000 formal houses in black townships, with 422 000 shacks in their backyards and 635 000 shacks on vacant land. The housing shortage for blacks outside of the homelands is at least 850 000. More than 7 million people throughout the country live in shacks of one kind or another. Of those 2,5 million are on the Witwatersrand.


* The slower urbanisation occurs, the easier it is to deal with.

* Rapid urbanisation means rapid increases in the numbers of urban people who need land, housing, water, electricity, health care, and schooling.

* Urban conflicts will be greatest where urbanisation is greatest.

* In South Africa the most rapid urbanisation is occurring around the largest cities: Johannesburg, Durban, Cape Town, Pretoria, Port Elizabeth, Pietermaritzburg, East London, Bloemfontein, and the towns of the Orange Free State Goldfields.

If the problems of urbanisation are not solved social unrest and environmental pollution will get worse.


SOUTH AFRICAN GEOGRAPHICAL JOURNAL. Vol.71, No.3, 1989, Special Issue entitled URBANISATION IN THE THIRD WORLD: POLICY PAPERS FOR SOUTH AFRICA. Available from P.O. Box 128, Wits, 2050, South Africa.

URBAN DEBATE 2010 (especially numbers 1 and 2). Urban Foundation series on policies for a new urban future. Address below.


SQUATTER CITIZEN - LIFE IN THE URBAN THIRD WORLD. J.E. Hardoy (ed), Earthscan, London, 1989.

UPROOTING POVERTY - THE SOUTH AFRICAN CHALLENGE. F. Wilson and M. Ramphele. David Philip, Cape Town, 1989.


The Witwatersrand Network for the Homeless. P.O. Box 2277, Johannesburg, 2000. Tel.011-3375576

The Black Sash Urban Removals and Homelessness Group. P.O. Box 2827, Johannesburg, 2000. Tel.011-8348361. Several regional offices.

The Institute for Race Relations. P.O. Box 31044, Braamfontein, 2017. Tel.011-4033600

The Urban Foundation. PO Box 1198, Johannesburg, 2000. Tel. 011-403 5500.

Created and maintained by: Jocelyn Collins
Last Updated: Thursday, February 01, 2001