A pledge of renewal for the Alliance

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Slum dwellers community leaders from throughout South Africa made a historic commitment last week to build and network community organizations in order to upgrade informal settlements at scale throughout the country’s cities. The three-day meeting at the Kolping House in Cape Town brought together over 100 delegates from the Informal Settlement Network (ISN), Federation of the Urban Poor (FEDUP), Poor People’s Movement (PPM), Community Organisation Resource Centre (CORC), uTshani Fund, uDondolo Trust, and Shack Dwellers International (SDI).

This wide-ranging alliance of community organizations and non-governmental organizations linked to SDI agreed to a program of action designed to build community leadership around issue-based development. Key activities include capacitating communities to collect their own information through household surveys, so as to be active participants in planning for their settlements and cities.

Further, a cornerstone of the agreed resolutions was an intention for networks of community organizations to build partnerships with municipal authorities. These partnerships will form the basis for a program of community-centered planning for upgrading settlements, and managing urban growth.

“Our strategy is a version of that old rally cry: ‘Nothing for us without us,’” said Patrick Magebhula, ISN chair, FEDUP president, and advisor to Minister of Human Settlements Tokyo Sexwale. “The kind of upgrading we speak of is not about land and services alone. This is about realizing real citizenship and equality in our cities.”

Magebhula made the remarks at a ceremony on Friday, 21 January, where the South African SDI Alliance joined hands with housing officials from the municipalities of Cape Town and Stellenbosch to reaffirm their partnerships to upgrade informal settlements. The Cape Town partnership has already led to upgrading projects in 7 informal settlements with active involvement of the local community, facilitated by the ISN as a network of informal settlement communities throughout the city. In total, the Alliance and the municipality have already agreed to work in at least 20 informal settlements.

“I have been walking this road with the Alliance for two years. I have shared the pain and I have shared the joy,” said Mzwandile Sokupa, director of the Cape Town municipality’s informal settlements department. “We bring all resources to the table, in terms of people, in terms of funding, in terms of will … We are also saying, ‘nothing for you without you.’”

Johru Robyn, Town Planner in the housing department of the Stellenbosch municipality, noted the transforming effects of his department’s partnership with the SDI Alliance. “We have pursued many public-private partnerships, but our partnership with [the Alliance] has led to a total rethink of our housing strategy,” he said.

The shift has been two fold. Firstly, Stellenbosch had never before considered an informal settlement upgrading program. Johru also noted the impact that the Alliance has had on the way Stellenbosch engages with informal settlement dwellers: “Now we don’t go to the community to talk to the community. Now we go to the community to speak with them.”

One of three planned partnered upgrading projects is already underway in Stellenbosch, and the city is exploring the creating of a jointly-managed “urban poor fund,” for wider scale upgrading in the municipality.

Nation-wide, the South African SDI Alliance has 23 pilot projects for informal settlement upgrading underway in 7 cities. Another 32 are planned, for a total of 55 pilot projects. Such work is done in partnership between communities, municipal governments, and, in 2 instances, also academic institutions.

FEDUP has long been the largest civil society initiative to empower the poor to build houses for themselves utilizing the governmental People’s Housing Process subsidy. Since 1994, the Federation has built over 15,000 houses.

Federation national coordinator and SDI deputy president Rose Molokoane reflected the Federation’s shift in focus to incremental upgrading during the round of singing that punctuated Friday’s ceremony. After singing an old Federation song about building houses, “Zenzele” (do it for yourself), she pointed to Magebhula who wrote the song. “ Now I want someone who composed this song to make a remix,” she said.