Cadastral surveying: What is it and why do we need it?

South Africa’s future socio-economic growth will be mapped out by the surveying profession, providing the framework for security of tenure when it comes to international and domestic investment in land and property.
By Altus Strydom*

Cadastral surveying: What is it and why do we need it?

*Altus Strydom is the chairperson:
Northern Provinces, South African Geomatics Institute

The field of cadastral surveying is both fascinating and complex, and is an essential discipline that has its roots in land law with a focus on land tenure, land ownership, land rights and land administration. It ensures clearly defined land parcel demarcations, their ownership and value within both the public and private space.

The responsibilities of the cadastral land surveyor include definining the location and extent of rights in land, the relationship between land rights and the persons who have rights, and restrictions and responsibilities in respect of land. These are also known as the three Rs.

Aside from ownership, cadastral surveys are equally essential tools for management of land and infrastructure development, and construction in general. For example, if accurate boundaries of land parcels such as property boundaries, servitudes, mineral rights, service corridors (road, railway, electrical, telecommunications) are not known, it is impossible to update reliable land management and geographic information systems. This is an essential part of urban planning and development for government entities or any other person occupying land. Plus the cadastral and deeds information confirms who has a vested right, as well as the identification and registration of any real right.

With very few exceptions, most countries (even communist nations) have a cadastral system delineating and defending their internal and external boundaries. In Africa, some countries did away with their cadastral systems after gaining independence, but most have returned to a system based on survey since there is no viable alternative. Mozambique is a prime example. People in general, especially rural communities, want to know where their boundaries are. The cost of litigation in case of disputes is impossible to bear.

South African surveyors (also referred to as geomaticians) are governed by the  recently published Geomatics Professions Act (No. 19 of 2013) and are regulated by the South African Geomatics Council (SAGC). It is important to note that this Act clearly defines that only persons registered as professional land surveyors with the SAGC may engage in surveys related to demarcation of boundaries. In South Africa, all parcels of land are surveyed and lodged with the Surveyor General (SG). The Land Survey Act (No. 8 of 1997) controls the surveying of land parcels.

Ownership provides title holders with the right to use land to its full potential: sell it, use it as security for a loan, exclude its use by others, or lease it. A lease for ten years or more is a “long lease” and must be registered.

Survey documents

The diagram and general plan are the fundamental registerable documents prepared by the land surveyor. Essential information includes the property description, listing the coordinates of corner beacons, details of any curvilinear boundary, servitudes affecting the property and the area of the property. In each parcel, a unique 21-character key is allocated. Upon registration at the Deeds Office, the diagram is attached to a title deed.

There are numerous types, such as:

  • diagrams for a single portion of land
  • general plans for new townships or several pieces of land
  • servitude diagrams for registering servitudes over an existing property
  • lease diagrams for registering long leases over portions of properties
  • consolidation diagrams when it is required to consolidate several individual properties into one, taking out certificates of consolidated title
  • mineral diagrams to register mineral rights separately from the land rights
  • mining title diagrams for registering the right to extract minerals from the land.

With the exception of mining title diagrams, which are registered with the Department of Minerals and Energy, these diagrams are registered together with their deeds in a Deeds Registry.

Sectional titles

The Sectional Titles Act (No. 95 of 1986) controls the registration of units in a building. This means that a person or entity can register ownership of part of a building in his/her/its name. Again, the process is administered by a survey, SG approval and registration in the deeds office. Units in a scheme can be subdivided, consolidated and extended.

It is important to note that adherence to existing town planning schemes and approved building plans are prerequisites to SG approval. The land surveyor must certify that these are correct prior to lodgement with the SG. Illegal additions to buildings are a major concern for municipalities because they create potential fire hazards. They do not have electrical compliance certificates, while structural defects could affect the safety of occupants.

When to appoint a surveyor

Before any planner, project manager, engineer, or administrator can start planning, they need an up-to-date plan to show:

  • existing property boundaries
  • all other rights that affect the property such as servitudes, proclamations and leases
  • existing contours
  • all buildings, roads, fences, powerlines and other structures that might affect the planning process.

Where redevelopment takes place, it is also necessary to find and map underground services, such as sewer pipelines, and electric and fibre optic cables.

This work can be executed by airborne lidar, ground-based lidar, GPS, conventional survey or underground services detection equipment. These are all supported by advanced technologies and are quick to implement. As an aside, even in the 1980s, aerial survey techniques were being used to conduct major cadastral sur veys of townships and cities. The biggest obstacle with aerial survey is that not all of the important details can be captured. For this reason, a ground survey is still necessary to supplement the aerial survey. Today, we can deploy drones and overlap the data captured from the air with ground data to achieve a perfect result.

The future

At this stage, the benefits of sound cadastral surveys and land registration are not readily available to many of our traditional communities, particularly in remote rural areas. In order to address this, innovative alternative forms of cadastral surveys and land tenure have been developed by the profession.

These new systems are affordable and secure, as modern survey techniques have enabled us to reduce the cost of surveying without compromising accuracy or reliability. In keeping with international trends, the day is in sight when the separation of cadastral maps and plans from land registers will be abolished. The national cadastre will then be managed as one digital entity.

Outside the formal sector, one area where the sur veying profession could make a major contribution is in the informal housing segment. Uncontrolled occupation and squatting on public land is a common challenge for municipalities, which impacts on the coordination and execution of urban spatial planning.

An alternative approach would be to survey, establish and fence off future infrastructure corridors within land parcels allocated for informal communities. The registration and allocation of individual title deeds can come later, along with formal housing and services. That’s a controlled approach that would work.

Cadastral surveys are the past and the future. They provide absolute certainty and ensure the fair and accurate billing of property owners. They also provide the only workable and legal foundation for land allocation and development. Property rights are also a proven catalyst for investment and growth.

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