Alarmingly, these numbers are growing, exacerbated by an influx of foreign nationals from neighbouring states.
Eight hundred townships existed in the early 1990s and today more than 2 500 are eyesores on the outskirts of South Africa’s cities.
Given the scarcity of available land, what is government doing differently to address this burgeoning problem?
General Motors (GM) has explored different ways to address the housing backlog by developing a variety of models for former shack-dwellers.
Its most ambitious experiment 15 years ago, Missionvale, Port Elizabeth, was one of the first low-cost housing models in the country to use the “higher-density” approach.
Higher density models make it possible to house more people on less land. But the 1 553 families of Missionvale had to understand the trade off: a bigger erf size and an unattached house, for a bigger house and the chance to live within walking distance of job opportunities.
But Missionvale was not without its flaws. The 106-page report on the GM website extols lessons learnt and these were applied on a subsequent development in 2000.
The result was the Sakhasonke Housing Village, a higher-density model that translated into a customised living space for the poor.
Sakhasonke targeted those earning less than R1 500 a month and earmarked an old caravan park in the suburb of Walmer to build double-storey, semi-detached units on an average erf size of 72m².
The ground floor of each unit contains a kitchen, a bathroom with a shower, a toilet and a living room.
Upstairs are two bedrooms with an insulated ceiling.
Sakhasonke was not a top-down imposition. Workshops were held with home owners making the transition from a shack to a house.
Cardboard models of the homes were constructed and they were allowed to take them apart and discuss whether or not their needs were taken into consideration in the design.
Seventy-five percent of households were women-headed. They suggested houses face each other. Walkways were pedestrianised and opened up into green courtyards.
The sense of enclosure is comfortable as buildings were not built too close together, allowing for adequate sunlight to filter in.
Sakhasonke was built within the R30 000 housing subsidy allowance and showed that higher-density development can be more cost-effective.
In traditional RDP-style houses individual plots are serviced, which is costly. Costs were saved in Sakhasonke by designing units to share services.
Houses were also built using the standard lengths of building materials like sheet and timber. Any surplus materials were reused.
Manhole rings, for example, became benches or tree planters in the communal recreational areas.
When comparing Sakhasonke with RDP housing the differences are stark. On the same piece of land, if an RDP-method was used, only 126 houses accommodating 630 people could be possible. By contrast, Sakhasonke housed 1 685 people in 337 units.
If Sakhasonke can teach us about providing houses, South Africa should learn from its innovation.