“Learning From Those Who Have Walked the Path”: Sharing Learning from the 5 Cities Programme

5 Cities Seminar

Community members and government partner from Harare, Zimbabwe talk about their experiences with the 5 Cities Programme. 

By Chantal Hildebrand, SDI Secretariat 

Following the first two days of site visits and walkabouts in Mtshini Wam and Langrug, the final day of the 5 Cities Seminar consisted of country and municipality presentations and discussion in the City of Cape Town government building located in the heart of the city.  Unlike the first days’, which focused on sharing the Cape Town partnership, projects and overall experience, the final day’s schedule was dedicated to learning from the other 5 Cities around Africa.

After brief opening remarks from Cape Town Mayoral Committee Member for Utility Services Shehaam Sims thanking all the delegates for the participation in this conference, the delegation from Ghana was given the floor.  Through the 5 Cities Programme, the collaboration with the municipality of Ashaiman and the Ghana Homeless People’s Federation has made significant strides in terms of innovation around sanitation. Based on a common goal of providing toilets and waste management services to slums in Ashaiman, an area included in the Greater Accra region, the municipality and communities have come together address this community priority. As stated by the government official, Mr Anass Atchulo, this partnership has led to some significant changes in policy, with the creation of an informal settlement-upgrading department in the city of Accra is underway. Adding to Mr Atchulo’s words, Mrs Janet Abu, a community leader from Old Fadama settlement in Accra, mentioned the importance of community’s involvement, stating that without their initiative and work none of these projects could be realised.

Following Ghana’s presentation, Mr Costly Chanza from the Blantyre City Council, shared the challenges and successes experienced during the formation of a partnership between the Municipality of Blantyre and the Malawi Homeless People’s Federation. Proving that all slums are decidedly unique, the slums of Malawi are rather peri-urban, with low densities and characteristics reminiscent of a rural villages. As it was explained by Mr Partick Chikoti, a member of the supporting NGO in Malawi, “We cannot plan like the communities of Langrug or Mtshini Wam because the nature of our slums are completely different [with structures made out of home-made brick and cement]… so we find our own way of planning.” This is where the City comes in, sharing their technical support and advice to help the community implement projects such as sanitation units and drains. Similar to Ghana, the outcomes of this collaborative work has led to both the communities and city planners advocating for the creation of a human settlements planning section of the municipality to further meet the needs of the slums in Blantyre.

Continuing to share other experiences, the Zimbabwean delegation highlighted crucial lessons learned through the 5 Cities programme and the realities of creating partnerships. Through the partnership between the city council of Harare and slum dweller communities, the weight of responsibilities the city is faced with in terms of providing for its people has been lifted with the help of community-run initiatives. Mr James Chiyangwa from the city council of Harare shared that the communities “provide back-up systems of services that the city has failed to provide [to slum communities].” In turn, the city provides technical assistance, equipment, and advice to the communities in terms of planning. This collaboration has led to crucial changes in policy, including incremental buildin, which have been adopted as city policy, and the creation of a finance facility for the funding of slum upgrading to which both the governments and communities contribute. Drastically changing the mind-set of the government of Harare from the pervious belief that slums did not exist in Zimbabwe to beginning to recognize the existence of these settlements and finally to creating a working relationship between these two parties, this partnership allows these previously unseen informal settlements to take an active role in improving their living conditions and participating in local governance. As Mrs Sekai Catherine Chiremba, a federation member from Zimbabwe, summed it up, “we are planning with them, not them planning for us.”

The Uganda delegation finished the round of presentations adding their striking work in sanitation, water and waste management in multiple settlements in Kampala and across Uganda. With projects focusing on these central issues facing slum communities (along with the collaborative work between the community and the city), the KCC (Kampala City Council) has asked the National Slum Dwellers Federation in Uganda to submit a proposal of how the city can scale up current community-run sanitation and solid waste programmes. This achievement, along with the joint-work teams made up of the community members and city planners, has graduated the federation of Uganda to “a key ally [of the KCC] in terms of the processes geared towards improving the living conditions of slum communities,” (Mrs Sara Nandudu, federation member). This status has also been replicated in other municipalities where the federation and communities have begun partnerships with local governments.

5 Cities Seminar

Sara Nandudu of the National Slum Dweller Federation of Uganda. 

Although there are notable achievements that have been realised through these partnerships, it would be unrealistic to omit the challenges. All the delegations (including those from Cape Town and other South African cities) mentioned similar challenges, including:

  1. Slow results – as mentioned by multiple delegates from Uganda, Malawi, Cape Town, Ghana and Zimbabwe the processes are slow and the work takes time which can lead to community and municipal frustration and tensions;
  2. The struggle faced by many politicians and technocrats to learn how to do planning the way it is done by slum communities – as explained by many city representatives, planners do not learn how to work with or like the community, so the way communities plan does not follow the guidelines and procedures that the planners are taught. This can cause clashes between the two and can obstruct the progress of projects;
  3. Federation creating strong relationships with some departments in municipality while other departments are reluctant to participate in the partnership;
  4. Confusion of roles and responsibilities within municipal departments;
  5. Disagreements between federation members and municipality of how to proceed with the work;
  6. Strains due to lack of funds.

As Mrs Melanie Manuel summarised it − using a metaphor coined by Ms Rose Molokoane comparing these partnerships to marriages, “husbands and wives always fight…like we do in our partnerships… [Now we must think of] how do we enhance our partnership? How can we make this marriage work?”

It was agreed that the best way to answer these questions is through trust. Borrowing the phrase of Mr Chinyangwa of Zimbabwe, “without trust you cannot move forward.” Both municipalities and communities must learn to trust each other through these relationships. However, for this to be successful it is essential that these partnerships be inclusive, where slum dwellers are involved from the planning stages through implementation and finally into evaluation. Without community participation throughout the process the work is not sustainable. As Patrick Magebhula said, it is essential to have “community involvement, not just leadership…this is what is needed in order for projects to succeed.” 

Following the presentations of the visiting countries, the podium was opened for the representatives of municipalities outside of Cape Town, including the city of Johannesburg, Buffallo City and Nelson Mandela Bay Metro. 

These presentations included little mention of current or future community participation or partnerships. Programmes already in place in many of these cities demonstrated a separation between communities and their governments, treating the slum dwellers as solely beneficiaries rather than key partners in upgrading initiatives. When questioned about this fragmentation, some of the municipalities mentioned their perception that the informal communities are disorganised, making it hard to work with them and appealed to ISN and CORC to help these communities mobilise.

5 Cities Seminar

Lutwamma Muhammed of the Ugandan support NGO. 

In concluding the conference, Ms Rose Molokoane posed a final question to the municipalities: “What are the critical issues that we would like to do with communities?” This brought up the topic of sharing between municipalities. Mr Lutwama Muhammed, from the support NGO in Uganda, shared that the municipalities’ presentations talked “more about what they are doing in terms of projects rather than describing how they learn from one another.” The invitation to these South African cities was extended in order to encourage learning and spark future plans for exchange visits and learning workshops. Ms Molokoane extended this invitation further by sharing a vision of these five cities (Buffallo City, Johannesburg, Nelson Mandela Bay Metro, Cape Town and Stellenbosch) becoming the examples of a national level 5 Cities programme for South Africa. 

The ending reflection brought up key points to address upon delegates’ return to their own cities and to discuss in future 5 Cities seminars. These subjects included:

  • Discussions of how the pioneers who work with SDI can help share the core practices and support other cities who show interest in creating inclusive processes;
  • Need to capacitate communities to create their own partnerships or, as Trevor Masiy eloquently stated, “communities need to learn to speak for themselves.”
  • Begin looking at the structural issues of why we have slums and the root causes of their existence;
  • Considerations of other forums for these discussions and exchanges (such as the South African City Network);
  • How to ensure that agreements made in these forums and conferences will be realised on the ground;
  • And finally, the importance of scaling up and bringing these discussions and initiatives to city-wide and nation-wide levels.

Ms Molokoane tied off the three-day 5 Cities Seminar with these final words, “Let’s not only look at building projects, but building ourselves, taking care of ourselves, and making our lives better.”

Partnering with the City of Cape Town in Mtshini Wam: Day 2 of the 5 Cities Seminar


Community members showcase model homes in Mtshini Wam. 

By Ariana K. MacPherson, SDI Secretariat 

The second day of the 5 Cities Seminar kicked off in Mtshini Wam, a settlement of roughly 200 households located in the greater Joe Slovo Park area of Milnerton, Cape Town. The day focused a lot of attention on the change that is possible through re-blocking, or blocking out, a community-led upgrading methodology that reconfigures a community’s layout to transform tiny passageways, dangerous and impassable, into wide walkways with courtyards where children can play and women can hang washing to dry. Shacks upgraded with fire-retardant material face each other, providing added safety for families who can now find shelter from the Cape’s sometimes harsh conditions. 


A wide walkway and upgraded shacks in re-blocked Mtshini Wam. 

Mtshini Wam was founded in 2006 when settlers occupied open spaces of a government-funded housing settlement in Joe Slovo Park. Though the Western Cape Anti-Land Invasion Unit responded with threats of demolitions, The South African National Civic Organization (SANCO) and Informal Settlement Unit (City of Cape Town) were able to prevent evictions. 

Mtshini Wam settlement expanded and continued to grow. Households in Mtshini Wam depended on water and services from the formal RDP houses, paying up to R50 (USD $6) a month for water. When Mtshini Wam asked the City to provide them with service delivery, they were told this could not be done because the settlement’s density was too high and there were no access roads. Greg Exford, Informal Settlements Manager for the City of Cape Town, said during his welcoming remarks on Wednesday that, “This area was, per capita, so dense that under normal conditions the City would never have been able to make it work.” 

In 2009, responding to a lack of services and the challenges they had faced in trying to work with City, community leadership from Mtshini Wam approached the Informal Settlement Network (ISN) for support. “Prior to re-blocking, the settlement was very dense,” said community leader Nokwezi Klaas, “There were no passageways and when there were fires it was virtually impossible to get into the settlement. All the toilets were on the outskirts and there were only three water taps for over 200 households in the settlement.”

Mshini Wam Site Visit

Local community leader Nokwezi Klaas describes her work in Mtshini Wam.

2009 was the starting point of a partnership between the Mtshini Wam community, CORC and ISN and the City of Cape Town. To date, this partnership has allowed the community to carry out a settlement-wide enumeration and re-blocking process, install chemical toilets and water taps, and upgrade their shacks using durable, fire-resistant material. Both the City and the community agree that this would never have been possible without a strong, dialogic partnership.

Mshini Wam Site Visit

Mshini Wam Site Visit

Representatives from ISN, including Western Cape coordinator Mzwanele Zulu (pictured on far left) and the City of Cape Town, including Greg Exford, Informal Settlements Manager for the City of Cape Town, were present at the gathering in Mtshini Wam on Wednesday. 

“This project will go down in the history books of human settlements,” said Mr. Exford, “It shows what can be done when the community works together with partners in government… In order to make government work for informal settlements, we have to fuse the conventional with the unconventional, otherwise it’s not going to work.” 

Mshini Wam Site Visit

Councillor Ernest Sonnenberg, the Mayoral Committee Member for Utilities Services, echoed this point, stating that, “Unless you physically take the community with you and ask them how we are going to achieve change together, you are going to get nowhere. In this way, you can find the synergy between what is demanded and what is feasible.” 

Luthando Klaas, another community leader and supervisor for the Mtshini Wam technical team, described some of the more technical aspects of the upgrading process in Mtshini Wam. There are seven teams, made up solely of community members, responsible for different aspects of upgrading. These include a technical team, gardening team, carpentry team, cleaning team, compacting team, demolition team and a building team.

Mshini Wam Site Visit

Mr. Klaas describes the various aspects that influenced the design process for the layout planning of the settlement. “When they started the design process,” he says, “one of the important things was to see how to improve services and improve safety and security so that police and emergency vehicles can come into the community and the community can feel safe in their space.”

In addition to this, he describes the sometimes-challenging process of negotiating with the community about the size of structures. During the enumeration, it became apparent that the size of structures varied considerably from one household to the next. In order to make adequate space for each household, community members agreed that no structure would exceed 20 sq. meters in size, allowing those households occupying the smallest shacks (some under 5 sq. meters in size) to live in more comfortable, livable spaces. This willingness to sacrifice individual gain for the benefit of the whole community is something that is quite understandably nearly impossible without a community-led process. 

Mr. Klaas spoke confidently about the community’s plans for the future, stating “we don’t want to be in shacks forever.” Members of the technical team showcased housing models that illustrate the community’s hopes for permanent, brick houses and their determination to continue upgrading their settlement. Klaas emphasized that, “it does not end with iKhayalami [upgraded] shacks. The community was able to move from wooden shacks to safer structures, and now they want to continue to move up to more livable structures for themselves – brick houses.” 

Following these presentations by the community, the group of roughly 100 participants had a chance to walk around the settlement and witness the change made through the processes of re-blocking and upgrading. Wide walkways give way to courtyards where clothes hang to dry and kids play under their mothers’ feet. Each cluster contains between 10-15 shacks and is built around a courtyard, sharing a communal vegetable garden that grows everything from spinach to dill to tomatoes. Shacks without adequate exposure to sunlight are lit with low-cost solar lights made from a plastic soda bottle filled with water and bleach. A community member welcomes a few others and me into his home so that we can see just how much light one of these bottle-lights can provide.

Mshini Wam Site Visit

A community member from Mtshini Wam describes his solar-powered light to another community member from Zimbabwe. 

Mshini Wam Site Visit

Community leader Nokwezi Klaas shows a community garden to a community member from Ghana. 

All in all, the most striking thing about Mtshini Wam is the spirit of the community. They have transformed their impassable settlement into a neighborhood. There is a sense of pride and enthusiasm that is contagious, a reality which is evident in the inspired words of the city officials present at the gathering. 

After a morning in Mtshini Wam, the afternoon was spent in the chambers of the City of Cape Town government building. Participants were given the opportunity to discuss and reflect on their experiences in Langrug and Mtshini Wam. The afternoon session began with introductions by Vuyani Mnyango, a local ISN leader, and Mkhabela Estavao, a FEDUP leader from KwaZulu-Natal province. Mr. Mnyango began by describing the formation of the ISN in Cape Town and the steps that were taken to build a partnership with the City. 

Mshini Wam Site Visit

“In 2011,” Mnyango says, “it was decided that the partnership needed to take action on the ground.” Today, CORC, ISN and the City of Cape Town are engaged in re-blocking processes in the settlements of Mtshini Wam, BBT Section of Khayelitsha, Vygieskraal and Masilunge.

Mkhabela Estavao describes South Africa’s Federation of the Urban Poor (FEDUP), a national network of women’s centered savings groups that, in partnership with CORC and ISN, mobilizes poor people to improve their lives. FEDUP was started in 1991 and is one of the oldest federations in the SDI network, having given birth to a number of other affiliates across the African continent. Membership currently sits at roughly 20,000, but Ms. Estavao emphasizes that this number does not even begin to capture the number of families that have been impacted by the work of FEDUP. For example, she states that over 80,000 families have received housing through the Federation’s processes. When FEDUP realized that they could have even greater impact by involving men more actively, ISN was formed.

Leon Poleman, Project Manager with the City of Cape Town, was next to speak. He spoke of his experience working with CORC and ISN on upgrading and re-blocking, of his inexperience planning for informal settlements and his initial skepticism at the somewhat unconventional methods already being implemented by ISN in Mtshini Wam when he arrived on the scene. 

Mshini Wam Site Visit

“I come from a formal engineering background,” he said, “When you go to university and technikon, no one speaks of the design of informal settlements, or at least not in my time. So it was quite simple: In my day there were no informal settlements, and this re-blocking thing, we don’t know anything about it, so off you go! And back into our meetings we went to keep discussing how we go about this.”

But what Mr. Poleman quickly realized was that these unconventional methods were the perfect compliment to his formal engineering background, and that through working hand in hand with the community, they were able to find solutions that would have been impossible had the community not been involved. He concluded with a reminder to the other professionals in the room: “We have to understand that this is informal by its nature,” and that therefore, the solutions we find must speak to this informality.

Shortly after this, the discussion was opened up to comments and questions from the floor. Councillor James Slabbert, Portfolio Head for Human Settlements for the City of Cape Town, expressed a keen interest in learning more about the work being done in Langrug, and welcomed CORC and ISN’s input in utilizing their experience with re-blocking to provide input to the drafting of policy around informal settlement upgrading for the City. Mzwanele Zulu, ISN Coordinator for the Western Cape, was pleased to hear the City’s willingness to make re-blocking part of informal settlement upgrading policy, and urged the City to stick to its word on this point. Following the meeting, arrangements were made by CORC staff and ISN leaders to meet with Mr. Slabbert at a later date to continue these discussions.

Another issue that came to the fore during this session was the question of secure tenure for residents of settlements like Langrug and Mtshini Wam, questioning whether upgrading and re-blocking do enough towards this aim. Patrick Magebhula, national coordinator for ISN, confirmed that  “the reasons for upgrading is to allow people to live where they are now, so re-blocking is just another way to give people land tenure where they live.”

Mshini Wam Site Visit

Greg Exford echoed this point, stating, “If we do upgrading [in our informal settlements], people are given security of tenure. If we do enumerations, as soon as we have that person on [the City’s] database, they have security of tenure.”

The meeting closed on a positive note, with a colleague from Zambia commending CORC, ISN and the City of Cape Town. “What you have achieved in Mtshini Wam is a huge achievement. This is a wonderful first step. Now how do we get other communities on board so that we can spread upgrading to more communities?”

This is the key question for the 5 Cities Programme. Earlier in the day, Mzwanele Zulu had expressed his eagerness to scale up the activities in Mtshini Wam to settlements across Cape Town. In Cape Town, thanks to a growing partnership with the City, this becoming more of a reality. Despite challenges and setbacks, experiences like that of Mtshini Wam is evidence of the promise these partnerships can bring when the community takes the lead.