Project Overview / Snapshot

Next to Tambo Square and Santini reblocking, the California project is the third project processed in Mfuleni. Formal houses surround the informal settlement, which encompasses nearly 50 shacks. Having no services, such as water, toilets, or electricity, the community of California started an incremental process of upgrading after a fire incidence in 2012 destroyed nearly all units. With the agreement of the community and the City of Cape Town on a reblocking project in 2017, the way for implementing services and improved structures has been paved. Since then, all 47 units have been rebuilt with fire-resistant material. The project also included the occupation of underdeveloped adjacent land owned by the government, which allowed reconstruction of the units to be less dense. Furthermore, the settlement is now connected to electricity; it has access paths and a storm-water solution.

It is planned, that all households will receive a toilet and a water tap – this installation, however, is still pending. Aside from those physical implementations, the reblocking of California socially impacted the community. The project illustrated the importance of a governance structure within the community in order to achieve its goals. Besides, vital lessons learned such as the power data, ability to compromise, and the importance of partnerships could be drawn – critical ingredients for precedent community initiatives.

“Because reblocking is just the start, it’s not the end, it’s the starting point to say what’s next?” -Oscar Sam, ISN Mfuleni Subregional Coordinator

California settlement before the reblocking started.


California is an informal settlement located in the midst of formal houses on the western periphery of Mfuleni Township, South of Old Faure Street. The settlement occupies a space of 2,239 m2 between the streets of Umzumbe on the North, Mgwanda on the West, Dutywa on the South, and M Baba on the East. Flanking the site is a piece of underdeveloped land with a surface of approximately 1,050 m2 owned by the municipality – land, which the community throughout the incremental process of upgrading managed to access.

Location map of the California settlement

Brief History of Settlement and Population

The informal settlement California was established on an unused government land around 2008 by a landless community from different regions, mainly from the Western and Eastern Capes. A small percentage of the community resettled from Gauteng. The settlement has been subjected to eviction threats from the surrounding ratepayers in the formal houses, as they claimed the space to be their children’s recreational park. Enumeration conducted in 2015, indicates the population to encompass a total of 47 households with 108 residents that live in California permanently. The main reason for settling in California was the eviction from the previous residential areas. On the migration history and pattern of residents of the California settlement, the majority (54.75%) of residents came from settlements around the Western Cape province. A sizable number of 42.86% of residents migrated directly from the Eastern Cape province into this settlement. Relying on the numbers collected by the residents of California in 2015, a significant portion of households live under severe poverty levels since 45% of the households have no income at all.

Challenges of the Settlements

The existing configuration of the shacks in California created several issues that the community members needed to face. These included lack of basic services and pathways, exposure to flooding, and a high level of crime.

Firstly, before 2012, the settlement did not have any basic services delivered. This changed with the community initiative, as they financed and implemented their own tap. After the enumeration of the settlement, seven toilets and two additional taps were built. Nonetheless, the ratio for water and toilets was sixteen households to one tap and seven households to one toilet. This outlined the inadequate standard of living in the settlement. California settlement did not have a legal water source, which forced the residents to use an illegal water point for all their water needs. This lack of water and sanitation services led to anxiety and the feeling of insecurity when using the ‘toilet’. The low safety status was further amplified by the fact that California was not connected to the legal electricity grid. Nevertheless, some households obtained their electricity from the nearby formal houses through illegal connections locally known as “izinyokanyoka”. Due to the nature of such a supply, the rates of electricity exceed the usual market price. Lacking proper lighting, the residents were further exposed to dark streets at night, which facilitated criminal acts.

Secondly, due to the dense alignment of the units in California, direct access to houses was only possible from the main roads and narrow alleys. Moreover, the settlement experienced exposure to flooding. This was mainly caused by the way of construction of the houses as well as the lack of proper water channels to drain off. Because the density of the units within the settlement was high, there were insufficient safety arrangements, and the use of paraffin was widespread, potential fires present another issue. In December 2012, fire destroyed nearly all houses of the settlement. As the residents of the settlement did not have anywhere to go, they started to build their houses again.

High density of the shacks in California before the reblocking


Start of a Community-led Incremental Process

Against the urgent need for water, the community started to save up R10 per household in 2012. With these savings, the community was able to finance the first water tap for all of the residents of the California settlement – a project of collective action and self-reliance that enabled the community to achieve a small step in improving their standard of living.

However, the community still had no toilets and no access to electricity. Therefore, the community met with the Informal Settlement Network (ISN) in 2015 with the aim to strengthen the voice of the residents. The ISN presented their engagement and introduced instruments such as data collection and exchanges to the community, in order to assist them in negotiations with the governments.

This process began with the collection of data and knowledge on the settlement, which then enabled community members to determine and prioritise community needs. The profiling and enumeration of the residents in 2015, for example, gave an indication of the water and sanitation ratio within the settlement. It showed that only one water tap existed for all residents and only one household used a self-made pit toilet. The majority of residents used the public toilets or the ones of the formal houses. This situation therefore called for a need for proper engagements between the community and local government. The implementation of seven toilets and two additional taps proves the efficiency of enumeration as a data tool. Furthermore, the urgent need for electricity became apparent. However, when they approached the municipality with the request, the community was met with disappointment. The municipality explained that it could not install electricity due to congestion and limited space.

“One of the reasons why we decided to do reblocking here in California was because we were living in a very congested settlement, so we asked for the settlement to be rearranged so that we can have space.”

Community of California collecting data on their settlement


A second tool applied by the ISN includes exchanges with other communities, which are currently facing or have faced similar issues in the past. Therefore, an exchange between California and Flamingo Crescent, another settlement that was reblocked by the SA SDI Alliance, was organised in 2016. There, California residents saw a successfully implemented reblocking project and were able to learn about the challenges and benefits of such a project.

When the community leaders, who visited Flamingo Crescent, were reporting to the community some members were not convinced about this project and rejected it as they felt insufficiently informed. This uncertainty was reinforced by the city that only approached certain households of California. After several meetings and explanations of how the project would look and what the benefits for the residents would be, the community voted for the implementation. Since the municipality had already allocated a budget for the reblocking of California, the community knew that if they did not make use of the budget from the city, these resources would be taken elsewhere.

“We went to that settlement [Flamingo Crescent] and saw how that settlement was built and how the settlement was redesigned and reconfigured to create space that would ensure the provision of services. After a year without interacting with ISN we also learnt that the City of Cape Town had made some budget for reblocking in California and this was through the work of ISN that negotiated for budget to be made available for upgrading California.”

Once they agreed on the project, the community of California established a community project steering committee consisting of eight community members. The role of the appointed project steering committee members included communicating to broader community and other structures that supported the project. This was the first step of the community to organise itself and implement some governance structure.


The realisation of the California reblocking project has been enabled through the partnership and collaboration between the community, the government, a contractor, and the SA SDI Alliance. Within the scope of the project, it was agreed that the municipality installs services and the community is responsible for the improvement of their structures. The role of each party has been divided and determined as following:

• Community of California
Throughout the progress, the community of California was responsible for surveillance, safety, and security, which was guaranteed by the leadership, the community steering committee, and the community members. The community further undertook the demolition of the existing structures, the eviction of the sites, and the erection of the new units. For this work, 25 local community and two Alliance members formed a community construction team.

• City of Cape Town (CoCT)
The implementation of the electrical connection and the delivery of emergency kit were set as the CoCT’s responsibility. Furthermore, the CoCT was responsible for the tender on the settlement’s water and sanitation installation and the execution of topographical survey.

• Contractor
Employed through the CoCT, the contractor was responsible for the water and sanitation as well as for the road and storm-water infrastructure installation. In order to do the work, five community members were employed. The contractor’s work is, however, at this point of the project, not entirely completed yet.

• SA SDI Alliance
The role of the SA SDI Alliance, particularly that of ISN, included the social facilitation and the project management of the reblocking. Furthermore, the SA SDI Alliance supported the breaking down and the erection of the structures, provided material, and managed the City’s emergency kit. It also assisted with technical support and the coordination of various stakeholders, mainly city partners in order to facilitate negotiations.

“There have been people that have been helping us to establish and maintain these relationships, especially ISN and CORC. This is because as a community there are people that we find difficult to access and these organisations helps us to access these people in government. And this is the case sometimes because we usually do not have enough information.”

Even though the partnership involved numerous challenges, the community felt heart from the officials. The cooperation between the parties further led to the strengthening of the relationships:

“We have been working with the municipality for a very long time now, but not with regards to this project. This relationship with government has become even closer now that we are having this reblocking project. Our working relationship with local government has been very good, problems have come out of the community because we only knew about reblocking in 2017 and it was introduced to us in 2017. At first, we did not understand how it was supposed to happen and we rejected it. But after a while we ended up accepting it as it is now being implemented.”

Project Preparation, Planning, and Design

The reblocking project is a way of enhancing access to services such as electricity, water, and toilets. The aim is to reconfigure the structures, in order to open access ways where by the city can then put services inside the settlement. It also attempts to prevent the occurrence of disasters such as flooding within the shacks and shack fires. This can be achieved with the use of a fire-resistant material called Clipbloc, that is composable and that prevents the spread of fires.

“The reason for having this project was because we wanted services – we wanted to have roads, toilets, electricity and water. And the reason I was motivated to be part of this project was because the project is going to help us in mitigating things such as fire in the settlement. Even the building material that we are using is not the same as the one that we were using before. So with this one it is going to be difficult for the whole community to catch fire – like it has happened before.”

As the community was responsible for the improvement of their structures, planning and design sessions were organised by the SA SDI Alliance. There, six community members with the support of the SA SDI Alliance evaluated different 3D-models and options to understand what the settlement could look like. This process is always challenging as it involves personal space. Questions, like how much space can be allocated for each person, was raised. In this context, the ability to compromise was essential. This is how the residents of California agreed on a solution.

California’s residents planning and organising the reblocking project


In the next step, the selected team of community members started to demolish the existing structures. Before the deconstruction, temporary units were built on the other side of the settlement, where the people could stay until their new structures were raised. In all, 47 new, single story structures between 10 m2 and 25 m2 were built, connected to the electrical grid, and had access to water. In order to reduce the risk of fire damage, fire-resistant material was used.

Working process of the reblocking project in California


Furthermore, access paths and storm-water drainage system was implemented. However, the residents of California are still waiting for the toilet installation to happen. Each household is supposed to receive one toilet.

The California settlement before (left) and during the reblocking process (right).

As evidenced on the map above, the density of units within the settlement reduced due to the reblocking. This was only possible with the additional land, which is owned by the government. In the negotiations with the CoCT, the community was able to claim the land, even though there is no official agreement on it. However, for all parties involved, it was clear that this project only happened because the community gained access to use the land.

“As we are living in this settlement there was land that was next to us and we asked for this land from the government because the land that we were using was not going to be enough. The municipality has given us this land as part of this reblocking project, so from this we have noticed that the local government does respond to our demands.”

In terms of funding, the cost of the reblocking project was divided amongst the involved parties. On the one side, the CoCT agreed on the provision of services including the installation of water and sanitations, as well as connection to the electrical grid. On the other side, the community (20%) and CORC (80%) agreed to bear the costs of building shacks. For the residents of California, where a large part of the community earns little or nothing, the financial burden was highly challenging. However, with regular, small contributions, the community members pay their share individually.

Challenges, Constraints and Lessons Learnt

The mobilisation, planning, and implementation of the reblocking in California involved some challenges and constraints that the community overcame. Firstly, communication in general was an issue, as it impacted the mobilisation of the community members. For instance, not all residents were informed equally and kept abreast of the matter. This led to open questions and thus, resulted in concerns and discord. However, with the vote on the reblocking project taken, the community showed unity. Secondly, the community faced challenges in the phase of planning and designing the structures. Different ideas, regarding personal space, needed to be satisfied and reconciled. This was settled with the collective aim to fit all the families in the new configuration of the settlement.

A reflection on the project, with its challenges and constraint, allows us to summarise some critical lessons learned. The project highlighted two particular aspects. Firstly, the effectiveness and power of data collection. Shortly after the residents of California profiled and enumerated their settlement, seven toilets were implemented – an installation, that was long overdue. Secondly, the importance of well-established partnerships and the need for strong leadership became apparent during the project.

The community organisation in California differed from projects such as the TB community hall in Khayelitsha because the initiation of the reblocking project in California was proposed by the government’s allocation of money to it. In Khayelitsha, for instance, the community organised themselves and pressured the government to create a budget through their governance structure and involved network. The community of California, however, established a leadership structure after the project initiation.

“I learned that as residents of California, we do not really know each other, as I thought before this project. This project has created a chance for us to learn about each other and to tolerate one another because we differ in a lot of things. As a result, it is helpful that we have community leaders that can speak for everyone and that people can raise their issues through and not to one another or direct to government one by one.”

Another lesson learned includes the essential ability to compromise. Although some might not like an idea and approach, it is important that people compromise on their differences for the sake of development.

“At the beginning of the project we had a problem with how the settlement was designed and it changed a lot to the point that we all agree with it. Another issues is with regard to the implementation of services we were given a map that demonstrates how these services were going to be located. So we are still waiting for this to happen from the municipality as they promised that they will do this for us.”

Finally, it is vital to have a transparent, clear, and respectful process and communication. This is highlighted in a quote from a community member reflecting on the project:

“The reason for the good relationship that we have had [with the government], can be attributed to our attitude when engaging government people. We have been very nice to them, and we spoke with them with respect and this has helped a lot in making sure that they listen to us. So it really depended on the attitude and how you explain yourself to these people.”


With the infrastructural implementation of basic services, such as electricity and water, into the settlement, the residents are less dependent on their neighbourhood, which previously provided them access to services. It also contributed to the appreciation improving living standards. Furthermore, the risk of fire disasters and the flood of shacks is reduced due to the increased space between the units.

Besides the physical impact of the project on the California community, social impact on its community members is equally important.

“In the upgrading of California, there is an advocacy purpose, resources were used for the community to demonstrate good practice around upgrading of informal settlements. The project was done so that the community can build itself as a community that is able to come together around issues because reblocking is just the start, it’s not the end, it’s the starting point to say what’s next? – Oscar Sam, ISN Mfuleni Sub-regional Coordinator.


Reblocking with the aim to unit people and to strengthen the community voice


As the reblocking project led the community to establish a governance structure and implement leadership roles, the united voice of the California community will remain essential in the continuation of the upgrading process. Furthermore, the existence of a collective voice might assist in the development of the remaining open space in order to prevent it from becoming wasted land.

The project further presents an opportunity for the community to start a saving scheme that will build social capital and allow community members to support each other, not only financially, but socially as well. The guiding principle of a savings scheme is the collection of people, their problems, and concerns, rather than only collecting money. It is considered as a way to check up on neighbours and to build and mobilise a community. Moreover, it indicates the power of data, which can be used as a tool to further investigate and make sure that the community’s priorities are part of government budgets. This data enables the residents of California to hold the government accountable.