Re-designing the city one shack cluster at a time

by James Tayler

**Cross posted from SDI South African Alliance**

By Andy Bolnick (CORC/iKhayalami) and Benjamin Bradlow

The roller coasters and carnival games at Ratanga Junction Park in the Milnerton area of Cape Town may appear as a middle class child’s idyll, even amidst the winter cold and rain. But only a kilometer away, shack dwelling mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers, daughters and sons, in an informal settlement called Mshini Wam in Joe Slovo Park are coming together to build a better life for their children. Collectively, they are influencing city government in a way that is, step-by-step, producing lessons for a future in which all children grow up in safe, vibrant, and nurturing neighborhoods.

The settlement of 250 families, is becoming a learning center for improving informal settlements throughout Cape Town. Yesterday, the community, which links with informal settlement leadership throughout the city through the Informal Settlement Network (ISN), invited city officials from the Informal Settlements Management Unit, Extended Public Works Programme, and city council, to celebrate what they have achieved. In less than one week, residents of Mshini Wam have begun transforming the physical layout of their neighborhood, through a partnership with the city government, ISN, and a supporting NGO called the Community Organisation Resource Centre (CORC). The ceremony celebrated the community’s work in “re-blocking” the dense, flood and fire-prone settlement, into organized clusters of 8-10 shacks.

The first cluster was completed on 23 February to demonstrate blocking-out to the community and to the Deputy Minister of Human Settlements, Ms Zou Kota Federicks who had come to Mshini Wam to attend the community led enumeration (household socio-economic survey and neighborhood map) launch. With three clusters done, the project is due to be completed in the next 3 months. In addition to the re-blocking, many of the shacks were improved with fire-proof, environmentally friendly materials.

The residents of Mshini Wam have, from the outset, claimed and owned this project. A community design team led the cluster-based redesign, with technical assistance from an architect at CORC. Luthando Klaas, when introduced to a reporter from the local Cape Times as a community leader, interrupted the reporter’s question. “No, no, no. I’m a community designer.”

This kind of assurance was behind the words of Nokhwezi Klaas when she spoke at a short ceremony with the invited parties. As she stood fighting back a mild cough, she spoke of the effect of the project on the community that she leads, and her own personal life: “As you can see, I am sick all the time because my shack is constantly damp from flooding.”

She then pointed to the “re-blocked” shacks and described how they were organized in a way that not only protected residents from flooding, but also created the space for the city to pave emergency access roads, and install electricity, and water and sanitation piping. Further, the community has been able to open up savings schemes that breed financial accountability and management skills amongst residents, who have then been able to contribute to voluntary shack improvements, in addition to the re-blocking effort. Community savings currently total R29,200.

As ISN leader Vuyani Mnyango noted, the upgrading effort is of dire importance in a settlement that not only suffers from frequent flooding, but has only 16 chemical toilets and 3 water taps for 250 households.

At the end of last year, the city authorities, ISN, and CORC agreed that, in order to do the required infrastructural improvements in Mshini Wam, it would be necessary to relocate between 20 to 50 households to an area nearby. The plan was for the city to come in and do the necessary earthworks and service provision and then the families were to move back. However, it became very difficult for the city to approve land that the community had identified for this purpose. No progress was made from March until last week.

The community wanted to begin and were getting very frustrated at the delays. The community leadership and ISN realized together that the best way to harness the community’s energy was to start blocking-out in an entirely in situ manner with no temporary relocations. Early last week, the city came on board in terms of supplying resources such as materials for the roofs of households (part of emergency starter kits), sand filling, crusher stone and compacting machinery.

The level of activity and community participation is palpable. Women are particularly active — clearing the site, collecting debris, loading wheelbarrows, carrying wheelbarrows, learning how to make the upgraded panels and then making them.

Yesterday, Mshini Wam’s Nokhwezi Klaas, along with ISN leaders, urged a representative from the city’s Extended Public Works Programme (EPWP) to join in this partnership. This would ensure that community members who work on such upgrading work are not only compensated, but also gain recognition for the skills development that occurs in a project like the re-blocking of Mshini Wam.

But this is not a project that is just affecting one community. Most significantly, Mshini Wam is a proving ground for a city-wide partnership for informal settlement upgrading between networked communities across the cities and the Cape Town municipal authorities. This alliance was consecrated in a memorandum of understanding signed with Mayor Patricia de Lille earlier this year. The re-blocking strategy, which re-arranges shacks in densely-packed settlements to open up common public space, access roads, and basic service infrastructure installation, is currently being rolled out in four settlements throughout the city this year, which is then set to expand to at least 18 more settlements. Through partnership between ISN, CORC, and Cape Town local authorities, the city is also able to explore other appropriate informal settlement upgrading strategies in a deliberate and collective manner. Overall, the city has committed R6 million for infrastructure, and is supporting community-led enumerations in all the identified settlements.

While policy-makers, academics and professional organizations struggle to gain even the smallest bit of traction on the ground to begin improving the lives of shack dwellers throughout the country, an alternative paradigm is emerging into focus. Little of this appears in the textbooks and policy codes. Rather, it is through practice that we can make out this new approach. When shack dwelling communities come together, and pool their own knowledge and resources, they are able to partner with local authorities and catalyze city-wide processes. As informal settlement-based learning centres spring up throughout Cape Town, communities are gaining influence, access to resources, and improved settlements and lives.