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.