Building inclusive cities

In this urban age, informal settlements are a recurring phenomenon and consensus is emerging that promotes the upgrading of informal settlements, rather than relocation, evictions and demolitions, to remedy the nature, extent and prevalence of homelessness and landlessness in post-apartheid South Africa.  Despite the introduction of potentially more progressive, transformative and situational responsive policies contained in the “second generation” of human settlement legislative frameworks – especially that of the Breaking New Ground – local governments have struggled to come to grips with the extensive community engagement, complex institutional arrangement and multi-departmental approach needed in upgrading.

There was a time when the word “uskoteni” was a word that police and government officials used to demean slum dwellers in South Africa. They were squatters. They did not belong. They were to be removed or, barring that, continuously harassed. But the word has undergone a change. Throughout South Africa, the shack dwelling urban poor now refer to themselves as “uskoteni” with a feeling of pride. For the word means that they are survivors.

Although the South African government has since 1994 delivered close to three million RDP houses, which are usually located on the peripheries of cities where the land is cheap, the demand for shelter provisions and improved living conditions has far outstripped the supply. Alternatives are emerging and changing the way that local governments and shack dwellers interact around the complex juxtaposition of worsening human development indices, service delivery constraints, insecure tenure, and security concerns. The South African Alliance of networks of community organisations (ISN and FEDUP) and their supportive NGOs (CORC, Ikhayalami and uTshani Fund) – which in turn is associated with Shack / Slum Dwellers International (SDI) – is strategically positioned to contribute significantly to the national efforts to upgrade 400,000 informal households by 2014.

Vuku’zenzele. Wake up and do it for yourself. Such is the way of the South African Alliance. For slum dwellers, this change in approach is similar to the way that they have changed the meaning of the word “uskoteni.” The RDP housing program has created false illusions for the millions who live in hope of a free house that will likely never come.

The motivation for this work is rooted deep in the grassroots. By this we mean the issues that emerge most profoundly from the daily experience of poverty, landlessness, and homelessness. Our strategy is a version of that old rallying cry: “Nothing for us without us.” For 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.