Knowledge Production – The Community Way

by SDI Reporter

By Charlton Ziervogel, SDI Secretariat

The South African SDI alliance made up of CORC, FEDUP and ISN have embarked on a challenging programme to work with government in assessing the most critical needs of residents in specific informal settlements in the City of Cape Town municipality.  This assessment forms part of a larger plan to look at ways to upgrade informal settlements and provide sufficient basic services for the residents.

The City of Cape Town municipality has been involved in collecting information in informal settlements but has not been able to get a genuine depth of information.  This is where the SDI ritual of community enumeration comes to the fore and demonstrates just what an advantage there is to be gained by involving as many community members as possible in the planning and development of their own settlements as well as needs identification.  As a mobilizing tool a community enumeration is unparalleled in garnering support, building enthusiasm and excitement for the residents in the settlement preparing for this process.  Like wild fire the news of activity spreads as enumerators start moving door to door and word gets out that a real attempt will be made to try and improve living conditions. 

What the enumeration does however for the community is bring it face to face with some of the truths that exist but are not necessarily known to the planners, officials and even NGOs who work with them.  Over the course of the past 3 weeks I have been exposed to this reality in different settlements in Cape Town, South Africa all engaged in the process of enumeration and all looking to get organized in preparation for future upgrading projects.   The challenges around inadequate services, housing and insecurity of tenure already provide numerous hurdles to overcome but the additional complexities in these informal settlements demand a nuanced approach to upgrading initiatives.

In each of the settlements a discussion session was held with the settlement committee concerning their expectations of the enumeration.  The discussion also served as an opportunity for community members to give input into what the enumeration questionnaire needed to cover.  These discussions served as a very interesting peek into some of the dynamics at play in the community that would normally go unnoticed to outsiders looking to make interventions.  In an informal settlement in Athlone, community members were most concerned about structure owner versus tenant relationships.  The official policy is that shacks should not be rented out but this does not prevent this practice from occurring.  In this settlement the renting of shacks was widespread and with news that an upgrading project was in the pipeline, structure owners were returning to their shacks and effectively evicting their tenants.  The community committee was most concerned about identifying who had been living in the settlement for an extended period of time as well as whether or not these residents were renting.

In another settlement located in Strand the community committee estimated that there were approximately 450 shacks.  These shacks were being serviced by 5 flush toilets and 6 chemical toilets.  After a more in depth discussion it became apparent that in reality only 2 of the flush toilets were working.  The chemical toilets were all full and were not being emptied thus rendering them useless.   Officials in this particular ward would have us believe that the bucket system was not in operation in this settlement.   In conducting further workshops with this community it became clear that often people had no choice but to resort to the bucket system.

Community members discussing an enumeration questionnaire in Cape Town

In another informal settlement in Milnerton hundreds of shacks were being serviced by a few chemical flush toilets.  In a discussion about this particular community’s needs toilets were obviously high on the agenda but as important to the residents was the problems they had with crime.  For them it was just as important to get a stronger police presence in their settlement, as it was to gain access to better toilet facilities.

These were the first opportunities I had to engage communities in Cape Town around the rather technical side of enumeration.  But amidst the methodological discussions on what constitutes good questions for enumeration and what could be done through settlement profiling, communities were always willing to take the discussion to a deeper level.  In doing so they revealed the many layers of complexity that also need to be considered when dealing with informal settlements.  It is not always about how many toilets or taps you can throw at the problem, but also about achieving a holistic overview of the settlement through the eyes of the people who live there.  In the weeks ahead I will be interacting with these communities around ever more technical topics but there will always be the space for a good long discussion about their many needs.  Often as development practitioners we enter settlements with preconceived ideas about what the focus should be but these experiences have once again reminded me that nothing teaches you more about a community and their settlement than an open discussion with its members.  Community ownership of the upgrading process does not lie only in their participation in installing the infrastructure or services but also in the knowledge production of information about their settlement.  Here in lies the real power of the enumeration exercise, it opens up the space for discussion and a two-way knowledge exchange between the formal and the informal.