CCSA, Government of the Republic of South Africa v. Grootboom, 2001(1) SA 46 (CC) (2001), excerpt | Samuel Moyn | August 15, 2016


This is the old version of the H2O platform and is now read-only. This means you can view content but cannot create content. You can access the new platform at Thank you.

CCSA, Government of the Republic of South Africa v. Grootboom, 2001(1) SA 46 (CC) (2001), excerpt

Constitutional Court of South Africa, Government of the Republic of South Africa v. Grootboom, 2001(1) SA 46 (CC) (2001)



3-  The group of people with whom we are concerned in these proceedings lived in appalling conditions, decided to move out and illegally occupied someone else’s land. They were evicted and left homeless. The root cause of their problems is the intolerable conditions under which they were living while waiting in the queue for their turn to be allocated low-cost housing. They are the people whose constitutional rights have to be determined in this case.

4-  Mrs Irene Grootboom and the other respondents[2] were rendered homeless as a result of their eviction from their informal homes situated on private land earmarked for formal low-cost housing. They applied to the Cape of Good Hope High Court (the High Court) for an order requiring government to provide them with adequate basic shelter or housing until they obtained permanent accommodation and were granted certain relief.[3] The appellants were ordered to provide the respondents who were children and their parents with shelter. The judgment provisionally concluded that “tents, portable latrines and a regular supply of water (albeit transported) would constitute the bare minimum.”[4] The appellants who represent all spheres of government responsible for housing[5] challenge the correctness of that order.


5-  At the hearing of this matter an offer was made by the appellants to ameliorate the immediate crisis situation in which the respondents were living. The offer was accepted by the respondents. This meant that the matter was not as urgent as it otherwise would have been. However some four months after argument, the respondents made an urgent application to this Court in which they revealed that the appellants had failed to comply with the terms of their offer. That application was set down for 21 September 2000. On that day the Court, after communication with the parties, crafted an order putting the municipality on terms to provide certain rudimentary services.

6-  The cause of the acute housing shortage lies in apartheid. A central feature of that policy was a system of influx control that sought to limit African occupation of urban areas.[6]


7-  Mrs Grootboom and most of the other respondents previously lived in an informal squatter settlement called Wallacedene. It lies on the edge of the municipal area of Oostenberg, which in turn is on the eastern fringe of the Cape Metro. The conditions under which most of the residents of Wallacedene lived were lamentable. A quarter of the households of Wallacedene had no income at all, and more than two thirds earned less than R500 per month.[8] About half the population were children; all lived in shacks. They had no water, sewage or refuse removal services and only 5% of the shacks had electricity. The area is partly waterlogged and lies dangerously close to a main thoroughfare. Mrs Grootboom lived with her family and her sister’s family in a shack about twenty metres square.

8-  Many had applied for subsidised low-cost housing from the municipality and had been on the waiting list for as long as seven years. Despite numerous enquiries from the municipality no definite answer was given. Clearly it was going to be a long wait. Faced with the prospect of remaining in intolerable conditions indefinitely, the respondents began to move out of Wallacedene at the end of September 1998. They put up their shacks and shelters on vacant land that was privately owned and had been earmarked for low-cost housing. They called the land “New Rust.”…


E. Obligations imposed upon the state by section 26
i) Approach to interpretation

21-  Like all the other rights in Chapter 2 of the Constitution (which contains the Bill of Rights), section 26 must be construed in its context. The section has been carefully crafted. It contains three subsections. The first confers a general right of access to adequate housing. The second establishes and delimits the scope of the positive obligation imposed upon the state to promote access to adequate housing and has three key elements. The state is obliged: (a) to take reasonable legislative and other measures; (b) within its available resources; (c) to achieve the progressive realisation of this right. These elements are discussed later. The third subsection provides protection against arbitrary evictions.

22-  Interpreting a right in its context requires the consideration of two types of context. On the one hand, rights must be understood in their textual setting. This will require a consideration of Chapter 2 and the Constitution as a whole. On the other hand, rights must also be understood in their social and historical context.



25-  Rights also need to be interpreted and understood in their social and historical context. The right to be free from unfair discrimination, for example, must be understood against our legacy of deep social inequality.[22] The context in which the Bill of Rights is to be interpreted was described by Chaskalson P in Soobramoney:[23]

“We live in a society in which there are great disparities in wealth. Millions of people are living in deplorable conditions and in great poverty. There is a high level of unemployment, inadequate social security, and many do not have access to clean water or to adequate health services. These conditions already existed when the Constitution was adopted and a commitment to address them, and to transform our society into one in which there will be human dignity, freedom and equality, lies at the heart of our new constitutional order. For as long as these conditions continue to exist that aspiration will have a hollow ring.”[24]

ii) The relevant international law and its impact

26-  During argument, considerable weight was attached to the value of international law in interpreting section 26 of our Constitution. Section 39 of the Constitution[25] obliges a court to consider international law as a tool to interpretation of the Bill of Rights. In Makwanyane[26] Chaskalson P, in the context of section 35(1) of the interim Constitution,[27] said:

“. . . public international law would include non-binding as well as binding law. They may both be used under the section as tools of interpretation. International agreements and customary international law accordingly provide a framework within which [the Bill of Rights] can be evaluated and understood, and for that purpose, decisions of tribunals dealing with comparable instruments, such as the United Nations Committee on Human Rights, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the European Commission on Human Rights, and the European Court of Human Rights, and, in appropriate cases, reports of specialised agencies such as the International Labour Organisation, may provide guidance as to the correct interpretation of particular provisions of [the Bill of Rights].”(Footnotes omitted)

The relevant international law can be a guide to interpretation but the weight to be attached to any particular principle or rule of international law will vary. However, where the relevant principle of international law binds South Africa,[28] it may be directly applicable.

27-  The amici submitted that the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (the Covenant)[29] is of significance in understanding the positive obligations created by the socio-economic rights in the Constitution. Article 11.1 of the Covenant provides:

“The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions. The States Parties will take appropriate steps to ensure the realization of this right, recognizing to this effect the essential importance of international co-operation based on free consent.”

This Article must be read with Article 2.1 which provides:

“Each State Party to the present Covenant undertakes to take steps, individually and through international assistance and co-operation, especially economic and technical, to the maximum of its available resources, with a view to achieving progressively the full realization of the rights recognized in the present Covenant by all appropriate means, including particularly the adoption of legislative measures.”

28-  The differences between the relevant provisions of the Covenant and our Constitution are significant in determining the extent to which the provisions of the Covenant may be a guide to an interpretation of section 26. These differences, in so far as they relate to housing, are:

(a) The Covenant provides for a right to adequate housing while section 26 provides for the right of access to adequate housing.
(b) The Covenant obliges states parties to take appropriate steps which must include legislation while the Constitution obliges the South African state to take reasonable legislative and other measures.

29-  The obligations undertaken by states parties to the Covenant are monitored by the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (the committee).[30] The amici relied on the relevant general comments issued by the committee concerning the interpretation and application of the Covenant, and argued that these general comments constitute a significant guide to the interpretation of section 26. In particular they argued that in interpreting this section, we should adopt an approach similar to that taken by the committee in paragraph 10 of general comment 3 issued in 1990, in which the committee found that socio-economic rights contain a minimum core…

30-  It is clear from this extract that the committee considers that every state party is bound to fulfil a minimum core obligation by ensuring the satisfaction of a minimum essential level of the socio-economic rights, including the right to adequate housing. Accordingly, a state in which a significant number of individuals is deprived of basic shelter and housing is regarded as prima facie in breach of its obligations under the Covenant. A state party must demonstrate that every effort has been made to use all the resources at its disposal to satisfy the minimum core of the right. However, it is to be noted that the general comment does not specify precisely what that minimum core is.

31-  The concept of minimum core obligation was developed by the committee to describe the minimum expected of a state in order to comply with its obligation under the Covenant. It is the floor beneath which the conduct of the state must not drop if there is to be compliance with the obligation. Each right has a “minimum essential level” that must be satisfied by the states parties. …


33-  The determination of a minimum core in the context of “the right to have access to adequate housing” presents difficult questions. This is so because the needs in the context of access to adequate housing are diverse: there are those who need land; others need both land and houses; yet others need financial assistance. There are difficult questions relating to the definition of minimum core in the context of a right to have access to adequate housing, in particular whether the minimum core obligation should be defined generally or with regard to specific groups of people. As will appear from the discussion below, the real question in terms of our Constitution is whether the measures taken by the state to realise the right afforded by section 26 are reasonable. There may be cases where it may be possible and appropriate to have regard to the content of a minimum core obligation to determine whether the measures taken by the state are reasonable. However, even if it were appropriate to do so, it could not be done unless sufficient information is placed before a court to enable it to determine the minimum core in any given context. In this case, we do not have sufficient information to determine what would comprise the minimum core obligation in the context of our Constitution. It is not in any event necessary to decide whether it is appropriate for a court to determine in the first instance the minimum core content of a right….

35-  The right delineated in section 26(1) is a right of “access to adequate housing” as distinct from the right to adequate housing encapsulated in the Covenant. This difference is significant. It recognises that housing entails more than bricks and mortar….

Reasonable legislative and other measures


41-  The measures must establish a coherent public housing programme directed towards the progressive realisation of the right of access to adequate housing within the state’s available means. The programme must be capable of facilitating the realisation of the right. The precise contours and content of the measures to be adopted are primarily a matter for the legislature and the executive. They must, however, ensure that the measures they adopt are reasonable. In any challenge based on section 26 in which it is argued that the state has failed to meet the positive obligations imposed upon it by section 26(2), the question will be whether the legislative and other measures taken by the state are reasonable. A court considering reasonableness will not enquire whether other more desirable or favourable measures could have been adopted, or whether public money could have been better spent. The question would be whether the measures that have been adopted are reasonable. It is necessary to recognise that a wide range of possible measures could be adopted by the state to meet its obligations. Many of these would meet the requirement of reasonableness. Once it is shown that the measures do so, this requirement is met.

Progressive realisation of the right

45-  The extent and content of the obligation consist in what must be achieved, that is, “the progressive realisation of this right.” It links subsections (1) and (2) by making it quite clear that the right referred to is the right of access to adequate housing. The term “progressive realisation” shows that it was contemplated that the right could not be realised immediately. But the goal of the Constitution is that the basic needs of all in our society be effectively met and the requirement of progressive realisation means that the state must take steps to achieve this goal. It means that accessibility should be progressively facilitated: legal, administrative, operational and financial hurdles should be examined and, where possible, lowered over time. Housing must be made more accessible not only to a larger number of people but to a wider range of people as time progresses. The phrase is taken from international law and Article 2.1 of the Covenant in particular.[39]


F. Description and evaluation of the state housing programme


53-  What has been done in execution of this programme is a major achievement. Large sums of money have been spent and a significant number of houses has been built.[47] Considerable thought, energy, resources and expertise have been and continue to be devoted to the process of effective housing delivery. It is a programme that is aimed at achieving the progressive realisation of the right of access to adequate housing.


54-  A question that nevertheless must be answered is whether the measures adopted are reasonable within the meaning of section 26 of the Constitution. Allocation of responsibilities and functions has been coherently and comprehensively addressed. The programme is not haphazard but represents a systematic response to a pressing social need. It takes account of the housing shortage in South Africa by seeking to build a large number of homes for those in need of better housing. The programme applies throughout South Africa and although there have been difficulties of implementation in some areas, the evidence suggests that the state is actively seeking to combat these difficulties….

63-  Section 26 requires that the legislative and other measures adopted by the state are reasonable. To determine whether the nationwide housing programme as applied in the Cape Metro is reasonable within the meaning the section, one must consider whether the absence of a component catering for those in desperate need is reasonable in the circumstances. It is common cause that, except for the Cape Metro land programme, there is no provision in the nationwide housing programme as applied within the Cape Metro for people in desperate need.

64-  Counsel for the appellants supported the nationwide housing programme and resisted the notion that provision of relief for people in desperate need was appropriate in it. Counsel also submitted that section 26 did not require the provision of this relief. Indeed, the contention was that provision for people in desperate need would detract significantly from integrated housing development as defined in the Act. …



69-  In conclusion it has been established in this case that as of the date of the launch of this application, the state was not meeting the obligation imposed upon it by section 26(2) of the Constitution in the area of the Cape Metro. In particular, the programmes adopted by the state fell short of the requirements of section 26(2) in that no provision was made for relief to the categories of people in desperate need identified earlier. …





Text Information

August 15, 2016

Author Stats

Samuel Moyn

Harvard Law School

Leitura Garamond Futura Verdana Proxima Nova Dagny Web
small medium large extra-large