The art of ark building in Langrug, Stellenbosch

By Walter Fieuw, CORC

The dystopia of the urbanisation of poverty is a confounding reality, to say the least. People eek out a living in the harshest environment, are subject to environmental torture, and have little prospect of escaping the vices of modern life. Under imperial and apartheid South Africa, the right of non-Europeans/ non-whites to urban life was continuously supressed, if not denied fully. In fact, the very existence of the racist regime was premised on segregated urban spaces. This is why, argues philosopher Achile Mbembe of Stellenbosch University, “most social struggle of the post apartheid era can be read as attempts to re-conquer the right to be urban.”

This confounding reality is often worsened and aggravated by government policies that do not recognize the urban crisis. For many years, governments have shied away from devising comprehensive policies that tackle the challenges of urban poverty, and that harness the potentials for innovative development, which have historically been associated with urbanization. In the global South, the import of modernist planning norms and standards from the global North has perpetuated the existence and recurrence of peripheral urban slums by creating sanitized spaces for the elite.

What are the real prospects for social and political change in this new democratic dispensation? The high waves of market forces, income inequality, and worsening human development indices rock the tattered and bruised vessels of the urban poor. For some miracle of resilience and agency, the poor continue to press forward. In many cases, the hope of a more equal and fair society has found expression in the agency of the underclass, of the excluded, of the marginalized. These societies have depended on a forgotten art: the art of ark building.

Despite the introduction of potentially more progressive, transformative and situational responsive policies contained in the “second generation” of human settlement legislative frameworks (the first ten years being a dismal failure), local governments have struggled to come to grips with the extensive community engagement and difficult engineering and geotechnical interventions implicit in the upgrading of informal settlements. Organised communities are filling the voids created by lack of political will, social facilitation, and technical expertise by generating a resource base they own: knowledge about their settlement.
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For this reason, Premier of the Western Cape, Ms. Helen Zille, paid a visit to Franschhoek on the 8th of May. She wanted to witness the progress made by the Langrug community in partnership with the Stellenbosch Municipality. Langrug is a large informal settlement on the slopes of Mont Rochelle Nature Reserve on the outskirts of Franschhoek. Seasonal laborers working on the wine farms and a large dam construction project established the settlement in the early 1990s. This settlement construed a forgotten people for many years, until the municipality was forced to action when the neighboring farm owner obtained a court interdict against the Municipality for the settlement’s greywater runoff into his irrigation dam. The municipality was forced to start negotiating with the settlement, because 14 families were to be relocated in the reserve earmarked for an access road construction. ISN was introduced to the settlement after the municipality engaged the network, opening a year-long relationship building window. Ever since, a full scale in-situ upgrade project has been launched; providing better service with minimal disruption to residents’ lives.
Premier Zille visits Ruimsig settlement[1]
Premier Zille opened her address by saying that there is no more difficult policy environment than housing. The question of the spread of resources – either a serviced house for a few or better services and incremental tenure security for many – has continually shaped the South African housing policy debate. During the visit, Zille commented, “the important point about this informal settlement is that it is one of the first where we have a viable partnership with the community. And now, working with the community, we are installing stormwater, greywater systems, toilets, washing facilities, road and upgrading the place generally … but the existing thing about this project is that we are upgrading shacks where they are instead of moving people out and starting from the beginning”. Western Cape MEC for Housing Bonginkosi Madikizela said: “It is a fantastic model. The message to the rest of the country is that any development is a partnership between government and communities. They become partners rather than passive recipients”.

Much attention was called to the “model” of community participation espoused by Informal Settlement Network (ISN). Zille argued that this new “model” could be better articulated by having a single window policy approach to refining the government’s ability to navigate complex (and fragmented) policy frameworks. Although such an approach could be instructive, a model without agency has no value. Organised communities have an agency to transform urban landscapes by transforming their settlements. One of the failures of the government-driven and top-down implementation of housing developments in post-apartheid era was exactly this: the entrenchment of the forgotten apartheid ghettos. But informal residents are taking the lead in integrating their development with the greater evolution of their surrounding urban spaces. The ark communities are building is an inclusive one; one that has the capacity to deliver social and political change. This ark does not look or function like any of the government’s planning apparatuses, which are often founded on principles that entrench existing spatial inequalities. No, this ark is different. It is different because the ones designing the ark are different. Communities and government can only revive the lost art of ark building when they partner around deliverables such as improved living conditions. In this way, power is shared, and solutions are co-produced.

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