“We Are uSkoteni. We are survivors.”

By Patrick Magebhula, Chair of the Informal Settlement Network (ISN)

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Magebhula is a member of the SDI board, President of the Federation of the Urban Poor, Chair of the Informal Settlement Network, and Advisor to South African Minister of Human Settlements Tokyo Sexwale

For slum dwellers like myself, there was a time when the word “uskoteni” was a word that police and government officials used to demean us. We were squatters. We did not belong. We were to be removed or, barring that, continuously harassed. But we have changed this word. Throughout South Africa, we now refer to ourselves as “uskoteni” with a feeling of pride. To us, the word means that we are survivors.

The capacity of the poor to survive and innovate in the face of harsh conditions forms the backbone of a shift in South Africa’s approach to changing the living conditions of the poor in cities throughout the country. The Ministry of Human Settlements is changing its approach to slum upgrading. Since 1994, the RDP housing program has produced matchbox houses for a few on the periphery of cities. Though the government has built approximately 2.1 million houses, the backlog of those without housing is actually larger than it was in 1994. Now the Ministry has agreed on a new program of action: incremental upgrading of informal settlements that benefits whole communities where people already live. In December, Minister Tokyo Sexwale made a commitment to upgrade 400,000 informal settlement households on well-located land by 2014. This is one of three major outcomes of his performance agreement with President Jacob Zuma.

For slum dwellers this change in approach is similar to the way we 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. Those who do receive RDP houses often end up living further away from economic opportunity than when they lived in informal shack settlements. More still have faced the cruel hand of a State that evicts shack dwellers from settlements in every major city in the country. Under the RDP program, the poor are dependent, dispensable, and defenseless. 

I write as the chair of a broad network of informal settlement organizations called the Informal Settlement Network. The ISN includes national organizations of the poor like the Federation of the Urban Poor, a network of autonomous, women-led savings schemes and the Poor People’s Movement. But the majority of ISN participants come from organizations constituted at the individual settlement level. These include residents’ committees linked to the South African National Civics Organization (SANCO), crisis committees, development committees, and settlement task teams. The goal of this network is to bring together poor communities at the city-wide and nation-wide scale to share concerns, talk about problems, and develop solutions.

In every municipality where the ISN has come together thus far — Cape Town, Ekurhuleni, Ethekwini, Johannesburg, Nelson Mandela Bay, and Stellenbosch — it has sought out partnerships with municipal government. These partnerships are a key ingredient to our work in pioneering community-led informal settlement upgrading that can go to scale in managing the growth of South Africa’s cities. In total, ISN is working on or has planned 55 pilot projects for informal settlement upgrades in these cities. All are being done to varying degrees of partnership with municipal authorities, and at least two are being done in collaboration with universities.

On Friday, 21 January, the community organizations that work with ISN, as well as the Community Organisation Resource Centre, uTshani Fund, and uDondolo Trust — NGOs linked to Shack Dwellers International — made a historic commitment. After three days of deliberation at the Kolping House in Cape Town, we held a ceremony that will come to be seen as a watershed moment for all interested in the plight of the urban poor in our country, and especially for the participants in our movement. Many of these people have been part of the constituent organizations of ISN for the past two decades.

We recommitted ourselves to a broad agenda for working with local communities to develop an issue-based approach to their own development. This means capacitating communities so that they can collect information about themselves through household surveys, plan for their settlement using this information, and to network at the city level so that the poor are a key ingredient to all city planning activities. It also means building partnerships with city governments in order to create maximum impact for our struggle. We were therefore proud to clasp hands with representatives from the housing departments in the city of Cape Town and Stellenbosch.

Many of us at this conference, like myself, have traveled a long path in the struggle for the poor to live decent and empowered lives in cities in a democratic South Africa. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, we invaded land to create many settlements. These are now home to formal communities with services, legal tenure, and housing developments. We have worked with all levels of government to build a voice for the urban poor in the institutions of South Africa’s developmental state. We have worked with communities to learn to save their money, collect their own information, and upgrade their settlements.

As government shifts to an incremental approach to informal settlement upgrading, it is finding that communities are preparing the ground for a historic possibility. For settlement-wide upgrading can only be done with communities as central partners in the process. With such a strategy in hand, the new policy environment is paving the way to real change on the ground. “Uskoteni,” in partnership with our cities, are now ready to upgrade lives, and build the nation that has long been our hope and dream.