National leaders of the Alliance congregate in Cape Town

By  Walter Fieuw, CORC

Leaders of the South African SDI Alliance congregated between 16 – 18 January 2012 at the Lutheran Youth Centre in Athlone to follow up on progress made since the strategic meeting held at Kolping House in January 2011. At last year’s meeting, the Alliance agreed to a shift of focus towards upgrading of informal settlements. Despite one of the world’s largest housing delivery programmes, the South African government has failed to curb the demand for housing and the improvement of basic living conditions for milllions of poor people. The Alliance has pledged ‘to strengthen the voice of the urban and rural poor in order to improve quality of life in informal settlements and backyard dwellings’. This we will accomplish by supporting communities who are willing and able to help themselves.

At Kolping House strategic meeting, the following four broad strategies would define the work of the network:

1. Building communities through FEDUP and ISN using SDI social tools;

2. Building partnerships with government at all tiers;

3. Implementing partnerships through projects; and

4. Keeping record of learning, monitoring and evaluation.

Upgrading informal settlements is an inherently complex endeavour considering the various socio-political realities connect to harsh living conditions and illegality. However, across South Africa the urban poor are mobilising and building institutional capacity to engage local governments around community-initiated upgrading agendas. As the Alliance’s saying goes, “Nothing for us without us”. Dialogues and outcomes of this year’s strategic meeting focused on meeting the development indicators which the Alliance set for itself at Kolping House. This year will see a renewed focus on the following:

  • Capacitating regional leadership structures, and the creation of a national ISN coordinating team
  • Recommitment to the spirit of daily savings, daily mobilisation and daily exchanges of learning
  • Deepening the quality of selected settlement upgrading, while growing the ISN network
  • Developing relevant and sensitive indicators, guidelines and protocols for the Alliance’s core activities to spur self-monitoring and evaluation.
  • Resourcing the Alliance through effective partnerships with local governments, universities and other development agencies such as the National Upgrading Support Programme (NUSP, Dept of Human Settlements) and the promotion of establishing Urban Poor Funds, similar to the Stellenbosch experience (hyperlink: http://www.sasdialliance.org.za/blog/Memorandum/)

Building coalitions of the urban poor able to capture the imaginations of city builders, both from the top-down and the bottom-up, is not often highly regarded or understood when upgrading strategies are devised. The Alliance is committed to strengthening the voices of the urban poor through building effective, pro-poor partnerships and platforms with local government, and implementing these partnerships at project level. As the process to understand the discrepancies and commonalities between the agendas of communities and the municipality gets underway, work must begin. Communities and the municipality develop, in partnership, a mix of “quick wins” that can build trust and show real change for communities. At the same time, the Alliance is also geared towards challenging many of the assumptions that lie behind planning for the urban poor throughout cities in South Africa. Other projects that get chosen for implementation are difficult cases designed to influence the way the municipality operates so that its methods come closer to the planning priorities of communities. All the project types also influence communities. At these interfaces of bottom-up agency and top-down city management, new ways of seeing, grappling with and finding solutions for informality emerge, and shack dwellers are no longer passive by-standers to the development enterprise, but active partners and innovators of finding workable, affordable and scalable solutions to urban poverty.

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