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Agency in informal settlements

Despite being subject to poverty, inequality, unemployment and sub-standard services, some informal settlement residents have not lost their dream of a better life nor has their agency and innovation become deactivated. They are forging forward to make life better for themselves. What varies is the scale of their interventions.

A case in point is the work done by the SDI SA Alliance (the Alliance) members, namely, the Federation of the Urban and Rural Poor (FEDUP), Community Organisation Resource Centre (CORC), the uTshani Fund and the Informal Settlement Network (ISN). FEDUP focuses on empowering women in informal settlements and encouraging community savings for community development. FEDUP has partnered with the municipality, CORC and the uTshani Fund to build necessary communal facilities such as early childhood development centres, halls and play parks in a number of communities countrywide. The community savings contribute 10% of the construction cost and the remaining costs are covered by CORC and the municipality. Both ISN and FEDUP provides leadership and skills training valuable to youth in the community. Communities working with these organisations have come to an understanding that regardless of financial constraints, they are not without hope but are the solution. The following projects have been undertaken through the Alliance with community contributions in the form of labour and savings:

  • Residents in Orange Farm named the streets in their settlement instead of waiting for municipal intervention.
  • Re-blocking has been implemented with community members in Cape Town in the California informal settlement in Mfuleni, Sheffield Road in Philippi and Mtshini Wam. In Johannesburg, re-blocking was done in Ruimsig. In some cases, community members were directly involved in the work and in other cases the municipality hired a contractor.
  • Residents in Ruo Emoh (Our Home) together with FEDUP and the uTshani Fund raised funds, bought an undeveloped piece of land and, through the assistance of People’s Environmental Planning, secured a contractor to build houses.
  • In Marathon and Delport, two adjacent informal settlements in Germiston, the residents co-funded, together with the Community Upgrading Financing Facility (CUFF), reticulation in their settlements to improve access to water. In total, they installed a total of 24 taps. The community also provided the labour required for the installations.

Savings for communal projects has also taken place in the absence of the Alliance. The residents of Santini informal settlement in Butterworth, Eastern Cape made contributions, bought pipes and hired a contractor to connect the settlement to water. Similarly, the residents of Siyahlala informal settlement in Khayelitsha made contributions and installed pipes and taps in their settlement. Although functional and improving overall access to water, the additional taps in Siyahlala are deemed ‘illegal’ by the municipality, raising the question around the appropriateness of compliance and formality within an informal context.

So, in the face of no better alternatives, how can community interventions be supported and accepted as functional (and interim) alternatives until the municipality is able to deliver permanent infrastructure incrementally? Firstly, municipalities need to recognise that developmental self-build initiatives by communities reflects the desire and drive to actively improve their own living conditions as well as latent agency to innovate and initiate developmental practices. Furthermore, the scenarios above show that residents are willing to invest their time, money and labour for mutual benefit.

Secondly, these less formal or less ideal interim options should be accepted, supported and regularised as interim measures until such time that the municipality can upgrade them. More so in situations where the community has surmounted a hurdle the municipality was unable to overcome. The relevant department should support communities by providing better materials and technical know-how on how to do things better. This should, however, not absolve the municipality from playing their mandated service provision role.

The major reason housing and services in informal settlements are inadequate has, in part, to do with the inapplicability of formal standards in informal settlements. Formal standards slow down upgrading and hinder upgrading at scale. This implies the need for a different set of land use management rules and procedures that are appropriate (though not inferior) for informal settlements. For instance, due to the high density of dwellings, a standard 10 metre road may not be suitable but rather a narrower one. Due to subdivision requirements in Ruo Emoh, a boundary wall had to be installed at the expense of the community constituted by mainly low income families. Things could have been done differently in this case. The costs of the wall could have been borne in whole or part by the municipality. Furthermore, the use of alternative building materials could have cut the boundary wall costs significantly.

There should also be a sense of urgency when dealing informal settlement developmental approval processes. Approval processes should be faster and dissimilar to the processes required for development applications in formal areas.

Despite these challenges, there are cases where the municipality has stepped in to capacitate communities to do more. A good example is Blue Sky informal settlement in Boksburg, where the Ekurhuleni Municipality trained community members on how to combat fires. Fire trucks could not access burning shacks in the settlement due to the high density of dwellings. An organised community emergency response team known as the bucket brigade thensuccessfully contained a ravaging fire that destroyed seven shacks without loss of life. The City of Johannesburg’s Emergency Medical Services likewise provided safety kits and training to combat fires. The capacitation of residents has enhanced safety in the settlements.

Much work has also been done already and good precedence set in terms of co-production and community participation by a number stakeholders including residents, NGOs and private financings institutions (e.g. uTshani Fund and CUFF), among others. The responsibility of upgrading is not only that of municipalities. While they bear the main responsibility as stated in the Upgrading of Informal Settlement Programme, the load can be shared with other stakeholders particularly communities. It is also clear that NGOs are playing a significant role in facilitating and undertaking upgrading in informal settlements. NGOs working on upgrading in informal settlements are, however, few. Civil society needs to continue pushing forward  though – through research and advocacy for the enhancement of policy on and implementation of upgrading; the upgrading process itself; assisting communities to secure additional funds for their interventions; and social facilitation to ensure planned projects go ahead.

In essence, civil society, government or the private sector cannot singularly successfully undertake the mammoth task of upgrading at across municipalities or across the entire country. Co-production may not be easy, but it is necessary.

Written by: Martha Hungwe


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