Despite its many challenges and limitations the concept of in situ upgrading of informal settlements has become one of the most favoured approaches to the housing crisis in the ‘Global South’. Due to its inherent principles of incremental in situ development, prevention of relocations, protection of local livelihoods and democratic participation and cooperation, this approach is often perceived to be more sustainable than other housing approaches that often rely on quantitative housing delivery and top down planning methodologies. While this study does not question the benefits of the in situ upgrading approach, it seeks to identify problems of its practical implementation within a specific national and local context. The study discusses the origin and importance of this approach on the basis of a review of international housing policy development and analyses the broader political and social context of the incorporation of this approach into South African housing policy. It further uses insights from a recent case study in Cape Town to determine complications and conflicts that can arise when applying in situ upgrading of informal settlements in a complex local context. On that basis benefits and limitations of the in situ upgrading approach are specified and prerequisites for its successful implementation formulated.