Community know – Community flow; Community show – Community grow

By Walter Fieuw, CORC

Much effort has been spent on crafting democratic spaces where ordinary citizens have a direct voice in the way service delivery is conceptualised and operationalised. Some of these spaces include ward committees, service delivery consultations, IDP workshops and many other democratic structures underwritten by major policy and legislation governing “developmental local government”. This is sometimes called “invited spaces”. However, these structures are often co-opted by political interests and politics of patronage.

Poor communities are often passive bystanders to the development enterprise. Despite the overwhelming odds against them, poor people continue to press through to the heart of inclusive governance. And this can only be realised when power is shared. Organised communities are creating democratic spaces outside the enclaves of government power, and these “invented spaces” challenge the inertia of service delivery paradigms.
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This week (27 – 29 February), community leaders from the Western Cape held meetings with chief field officers of the City of Cape Town (CoCT) to showcase the lessons learnt and successes achieved in the few pilot projects initiated under the Informal Settlement Network (ISN). Delegates from Western Cape Backyarders Network, University of Stellenbosch, and the Informal Settlements Management in the CoCT were also present. Since the CoCT agreed to nine pilot projects within the next six to twelve months, ISN has been preparing and sensitising key City officials to the processes implicit in community-driven upgrading, especially that of blocking out. On Monday, the group gathered in Sheffield Road, where the community  has successfully blocked out 116 shacks. The agenda of the meeting was to give city officials insight into the complexity and amount of negotiations that happen to make blocking out happen.
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Lisa and Priscilla, two community leaders of Sheffield Road, addressed the group by outlining some of the major happenings since September 2009.

  • September 2009: Community is introduced to ISN regional leaders and learn about enumeration, savings, and community leadership
  • October 2009: First meeting with the CoCT alongside other ISN leaders. They ask for more toilets in their settlement
  • November 2009: Enumeration is completed and reveals that the 116 shacks of Sheffield Road settlement only have 15 toilets. However, it is too dense to install more toilets.
  • January 2010: The concept of blocking out is introduced and the community starts measuring the shacks and space it occupies. It is agreed that shacks will be rearranged, and that new shacks will be 15 m2 (seeing that there were very large and very small shacks co-existing in a very small area)
  • September 2010: Re-blocking of cluster 1. This ensured the buy-in from the other clusters
  • September 2010 – January 2012: Blocking-out of Sheffield Road is completed.

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On Tuesday, the group met in Burundi, a settlement unknown to the CoCT until the community joined the ISN. The settlement is 13 years old, and the enumeration conducted there revealed 1,600 shacks housing 4,500 people only had 53 toilets and 18 water taps. The agenda for Tuesday’s meeting was to address the aspects of community design in blocking out. This includes the measuring of shacks, identification of clusters, setting up of cluster / block committees, and spatial mapping. On Wednesday, the group discussed the presentation of scale models to influence the wider community and the showcasing of demonstration blocks. Some community members are usually skeptical about blocking out when the concept is introduced. They are not comfortable with the idea of disruption, and sometimes distrust ISN leaders coming from other settlements to explain the processes implicit. But after one cluster has been completed, the wider community is anxious to start construction in their clusters.
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The ideal of deepening democracy and realising citizenship is constantly under threat, as is the concept of community. It is only when communities generate a locally responsive knowledge – a knowledge that narrate their lived experience and their visions of a preferred future – and “flow” in this knowledge, when communities can showcase and influence policy, growing in and through the process.