General plans and urban growth in South Africa

August 20, 2015

Work done by town and regional planning consultants is broadly divided between the so-called “strategic” work on the one hand and the “land use management” or “land use control” work on the other hand. Very often it culminates specialisation for town and regional planners either one of these fields. Generally the “strategic planners” deals with long-term outcomes of planning and development and the land use planner with town planning schemes, cadastre and title deeds. The strategic planning not paying much attention to cadastre.



But first on cadstre in South Africa ( The first land surveyors came to the Cape in approximately 1658, five years after Jan van Riebeek had established the first European settlement at the Cape. The first cadastral survey was for a piece of land along the banks of the Liesbeek River in order to transfer land to a released servant of the Dutch East India Company. Until 1857, surveys were represented in a graphical manner using natural features as boundaries. After 1857, theodolites were used and the recording of numerical data on diagrams was compulsory. The British occupation introduced legislation (Cradock Proclamation) in 1813 that no sale of land would be recognized unless the land had been properly surveyed and registered. In 1971 the Sectional Title Act made it possible for the first time in South Africa for flats (apartments) and other portions of buildings to be individually owned.


South Africa is fully covered by the National Control Survey System (NCSS) which is of high accuracy and which is marked by a network of Trigonometrical stations and Town Survey Marks. It is a legal requirement that all cadastral surveys be connected to this system. As from 01-01-1999 the NCSS has been based on the World Geographic System 1984 ellipsoid with the position of the Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Telescope as the origin of the system.


The primary function of the Cadastral System in South Africa is to define (delineate and document) ownership rights. Any land that has not been transferred from the state to a juristic person remains the property of the state. Any juristic person that has been granted freehold rights is free to trade (transfer at market value) that immovable property. Accurate delineation of the ownership rights has enabled the development of a Cadastral Information System, which forms the basis for land valuation; land taxation, development planning, local authority demarcation and land administration.

There is a Surveyor-General in Pretoria, Cape Town, Bloemfontein and Pietermaritzburg. The 9 Provinces have been divided between the 4 Surveyor-Generals. Each Surveyor-General is more or less autonomous within his or her area of jurisdiction. The principal functions of each Surveyor-General is to:


  •  Examine and approve diagrams, general plans and sectional title plans that are lodged for approval prior to them being registered in a Deeds Registry.

  •  Preserve and keep up to date all approved documents and records pertaining to cadastral surveys.

  • Supply copies of documents kept in the office in hard copy or digital form.

  • Provide advice and information pertaining to the cadastre.


      There are diagrams used for registration purposes and sectional plans showing the relative position of two or more units within a sectional title scheme but it is the general plan that interests us.


A general plan is a document consisting of one or more sheets showing the relative position of two or more pieces of land. It is compulsory to prepare a general plan for any subdivision of land into ten or more pieces or when required in terms of any law, such as township establishment or the amendment of an existing general plan. General plans may comprise many sheets and depict a very large number of erven.

In the normal run of play, town planners in the strategic branch of planning will not pay much attention to general plans. However, since the subdivision of land has been meticulously recorded it does not only describe land parcels but shows the history of growth and development over a time period of more than two centuries.


The interest in general plans lies in the emerging structure of settlement they describe. The map below shows how Tshwane developed from the 19th century to date through mapping the age of general plans.





The growth from the original core follows a very concentric pattern. This is despite the strong physical barriers such as the Magaliesberg and the two another parallel ranges present immediately north and south of central Pretoria. The only exception to concentric growth is immediately to the south where the Fountain Valley, Groenkloof Nature Reserve (the oldest proclaimed nature reserve in South Africa - 1895) and the military bases of Thabatswane are located. Secondly, general plans (subdivisions) had become smaller over time and more so in the last few decades. This might be due to the cost and risks over very large development and also due to development moving into the zone of agricultural holding that was established around cities in the earlier parts of the twentieth century. Thirdly, notwithstanding government policy and development theorists being very vocal about densification and urban growth edges, development has happily continued to spread outward.



By browsing the map, one can also see how extensively farms were surveyed in the old Cape Province. This all happened in the 19thcentury. Furthermore it is noticeable how many general plans was registered since 1990 but most of them on the periphery of cities and towns. Also, since 1990 there was a proliferation of development in tribal areas but very few of them linking with any major existing development or in anyway contributing to rationalising South Africa’s spatial settlement structure. How ineffective or how little this process in tribal areas contributed to structuring settlement and development will be dealt with in a subsequent blog.



It is clear that there are much to be derived for the urban planner and policy analyst from how the cadastre develops over time. It is not only a reflection of development history but also shows how policy intervention pans out and how it squares up against the forces of development.



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