Balancing agency and structure in Cape Town

By 23rd Apr 2012 Aug 14th, 2020 CORC, ISN, News

By Walter Fieuw, CORC

One of the salient challenges when capacitated networks of the urban poor build partnerships with the local government is balancing the agency of micro-level interventions and practices with the macro-level structures of governance and body of rules. Perhaps then the most important aspect of forging partnerships is the ability to negotiate and transact around a common set of problems and agendas guided by social and political change. Government is obligated by the Municipal Systems Act of 2000 to create a “culture of community participation” where the community has a direct interest and influence on the design of governance arrangements. The onus lies both of communities and local governments to create these “cultures”.

One of the unfolding “cultures” in the partnership between communities aligned to the Informal Settlement Network (ISN) and the City of Cape Town is forging new institutional alignments through the practice of upgrading informal settlements. CORC reported on the initial partnership formation with the City of Cape Town in August 2011 where the new Mayor Alderman Patricia de Lille made an in-principle commitment to furthering the evolving partnership. Initially 23 projects were identified for pilots to experiment in the new people-centered development approaches the ISN presents. Monthly partnership meetings were held in each of the four City regions: South/Central; Strand/Khayalitsha; Eastern; and Blauwberg. Community leaders and the City’s Principle Field Officers (PFO) and senior engineers in the Department Human Settlements sat together and discussed the development plans, enumeration results, and governance issues. This radical departure from service delivery consultations towards much deeper engagement was a momentous moment. Understandably, this new partnership was wrought with complexity and uncertainty – especially aligning other line departments such as Water and Sanitation, Electricity, Stormwater, etc to these community development plans – which threatened to derail the process. Besides the practical interventions of communities accessing the flexible funding mechanism of the Community Upgrading Financing Facility (CUFF) – housed in the Alliance NGO uTshani Fund – very few upgrades were initiated. The clash of worlds – those micro agencies of community practices meeting the macro institutional imperatives – was both a stammer-and-stuttering and educative-and-edifying curve for all to embrace.

In the embers of a seemingly stalemate partnership, a new spark ignited negotiations and possibilities. This spark was the process of upgrading of Sheffield Road, which have attracted many national and international dignitaries. In short, Sheffield Road provided a case where the incremental upgrading of a settlement through the rearrangement of shacks in a community-designed layout map not only transformed the lived spaces of the settlement, but also forge new innovative institutional imperatives for upgrading. Institutional innovation was necessary as Sheffield Road settlement is located on a road reserve, which means that no development in formal planning procedures would be allowed. Sheffield Road was upgraded, and the City pledged to work alongside this intervention by delivering more waterborne flush toilets in the spaces created by the community. New avenues were being explored to see how city officials and PFOs could work alongside communities to replicate the successes of Sheffield Road. They met in Sheffield Road to discuss the practical interventions and institutional alignments needed to take blocking out to scale.

This short history of the partnership is in lieu of conclusion. Rather, the partnership has the potential to be instructive for replication on national scale. In February 2012, 22 new pilot partnership projects were agreed to. The geographical spread of these projects were true to the need of the City, with eleven projects in the South / Central area, and six in the Khayalitsha / Strand area. Some of the projects (20%) included consolidation and relocation of settlements (those settlements less than 15 households where development is not feasible), some included (40%) formalization and subdivision, and some include (40%) blocking out. Settlements range from very small (7 households) to considerably large (1,284 households). Projects prioritise short term service delivery and long term formalization and infrastructure development.

The deputy-minister of National Department of Human Settlements, Ms. Zoe Kota-Fredericks visited settlements in Joe Slovo Park and formed part of the activities and celebrations.

On Thursday 19 April, the celebrations came closer to home when Mayor De Lille signed the partnership accord with ISN and CORC. At a mass gathering held in Vygieskraal – a settlement of 300 households located behind the formal housing development with the same name in Athlone – the Mayor was introduced to the programmes of the ISN. She saw the community’s demonstration model of the new cluster layout, the enumeration results, and listened to community leaders and the local councilor speak about their experiences.


De Lille reiterated that her vision of an “inclusive” and “caring” City included the formation of new partnerships with civic organisations. The partnership will share the following guiding principles, which Mayco Member for Human Settlement Councilor Sonnenberg presented:

  1. Create a shared community vision of the future, especially with regard to informal settlements upgrading and backyard rehabilitation;
  2. Identify and prioritise key issues, thereby facilitating immediate measures to alleviate urgent problems;
  3. Support community-based analysis of local issues, including the comprehensive review of long-term, systemic problems that confront particular service systems and the need to integrate different service strategies so that they are mutually supportive;
  4. Develop action plans for addressing key issues, drawing from the experiences and innovations of diverse local groups;
  5. Mobilise community-wide resources to meet service needs, including the joint implementation of sustainable development projects; and
  6. Increase public support for municipal activities and local understanding of municipal development needs and constraints.

Balancing micro agencies with macro institutional prerogatives is an on-going series of negotiations and transactions. On the one side, communities need to articulate their development plans in ways that fit into the state’s machinery, and on the other hand, local governments need to move beyond structuralist predispositions of forging collaborative partnerships. These tensions continue to shape the view from the bottom and the view from the top. As this pendulum swings, so the point of accumulation also changes. The challenge going forward will be to build platforms where engagement is centred on the lived experience, and not always the perceived experience made up of imaginations of city builders. On the other hand, it is almost inconceivable to approach city building with an absolute certainty of what is going on and what is needed to make it better. In the narrow openings and cracks in intersections of agency and structure, communities are seeking out the ‘shifts’ in the institutional arrangements which determine the way policy translates into action. For without these strong driving forces, progress towards inclusion and new forms of citizenship will remain rhetorical constructs.

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