South African SDI Alliance Sets Strategic Goals for 2012

by James Tayler

By: Walter Fieuw, CORC 

Leaders of the South African SDI Alliance congregated between 16 – 18 January 2012 to follow up on progress made since the strategic meeting held at Kopling House in January 2011. At last year’s meeting, the Alliance agreed to a shift of focus towards upgrading of informal settlements. Despite one of the world’s largest housing delivery programmes, the South African government has failed to curb the demand for housing and the improvement of basic living conditions for millions of poor people. The Alliance has pledged ‘to strengthen the voice of the urban and rural poor in order to improve quality of life in informal settlements and backyard dwellings’. This we will accomplish by supporting communities who are willing and able to help themselves. 

At the Kopling House strategic meeting, the following four broad strategies were decided upon to define the work of the network:

  1. Building communities through the Federation of the Urban Poor (FEDUP) and Informal Settlement Network (ISN) using SDI social tools;
  2. Building partnerships with government at all tiers;
  3. Implementing partnerships through projects; and
  4. Keep record of learning, monitoring and evaluation.

Upgrading informal settlements is an inherently complex endeavor considering the various socio-political realities connected to harsh living conditions and illegality. However, across South Africa the urban poor are mobilizing and building institutional capacity to engage local governments around community-initiated upgrading agendas. As the Alliance’s saying goes, “Nothing for us without us”. Dialogues and outcomes of this year’s strategic meeting focused on meeting the development indicators, which the Alliance set for itself at Kopling House. This year will see a renewed focus on the following:

  • Capacitating regional leadership structures, and the creation of a national ISN coordinating team
  • Recommitment to the spirit of daily savings, daily mobilization and daily exchanges of learning
  • Deepening the quality of selected settlement upgrading, while growing the ISN network
  • Developing relevant and sensitive indicators, guidelines and protocols for the Alliance’s core activities to spur self-monitoring and evaluation.
  • Resourcing the Alliance through effective partnerships with local governments, universities and other development agencies such as the National Upgrading Support Programme (NUSP, Dept of Human Settlements) and the promotion of establishing Urban Poor Funds, similar to the Stellenbosch experience.

Building coalitions of the urban poor with capacity to capture the imaginations of city builders, both from the top-down and the bottom-up, is not often highly regarded or understood when upgrading strategies are devised. The Alliance is committed to strengthening the voices of the urban poor through building effective, pro-poor partnerships and platforms with local government, and implementing these partnerships at project level.

As the process to understand the discrepancies and commonalities between the agendas of communities and the municipality get underway, work must begin. Communities and the municipality develop, in partnership, a mix of “quick wins” that can build trust and show real change for communities. At the same time, the Alliance is geared towards challenging many of the assumptions that lie behind planning for the urban poor throughout cities in South Africa. Other projects that get chosen for implementation are difficult cases designed to influence the way the municipality operates so that its methods come closer to the planning priorities of communities.

All the project types also influence communities. At these interfaces of bottom-up agency and top-down city management, new ways of seeing, grappling with and undestanding informality emerge, and shack dwellers are no longer passive by-standers to the development enterprise, but active partners and innovators, finding workable, affordable and scalable solutions to urban poverty.