Project overview

Work to bring the Ruo Emoh housing project to completion spanned over two decades. Its success was celebrated
on December 22nd, 2017, when 49 families moved into new homes, built on a well-located piece of infill land on the corner of Weltevreden Parkway
 & Caesars Drive in Colorado Park, Mitchells Plain. The houses are located adjacent to public transport and nearby schools, a community hall, shops and a hospital. The process to bring the project to completion was, however, complex and contested, marked by the community’s persistent battle with government’s administrative and political hurdles, and contestation from the neighbouring ratepayer groups.



First steps towards Ruo Emoh

To trace the struggle and success of Ruo Emoh we need to look back to 1997, when Janap Oosthuizen and Lee-Ann Fredericks were part of creating a savings scheme. Over time, backyarders and tenants strained by poor living conditions in Manenberg and Mitchells Plain joined the savings scheme. Dissatisfied by waiting for government subsidised housing, the collective initiated the Ruo Emoh Housing Savings Scheme.


Backyard residents in Manenberg

The savings scheme was established under the South African Homeless People’s Federation, which later became known as the Federation of the Urban and Rural Poor (FEDUP). The Federation is a women’s-led, member-based social movement that organises through savings collectives and practices associated with Shack Dwellers International (SDI).

In order to initiate a savings scheme under the Federation, a group needs to identify collectors and treasurers. Collectors mobilise savers through collecting and recording savings, ideally on a daily basis. This enables savers to build trust, share personal challenges with each other and identify collective priorities. Treasurers are responsible for managing deposits and withdrawals in
 a joint bank account and overseeing the general finances of the group. To become a member of the Federation a saver is asked to contribute a once off sum of R750 to the Federation’s national urban poor fund (UPF). Over the years the Federation has used these regional and nation-wide contributions (whether to the UPF or other collective Federation funds) to negotiate with the state and other actors around leveraging additional resources for development priorities.

Within a group, saving is primarily about building trust, solidarity and strong organising capacity. Through coming together in the Ruo Emoh savings group, individuals faced with similar hardships began building solidarity. In addition to daily savings, Ruo Emoh group members saved towards land, infrastructure and housing deposits. Saving together and building solidarity was not a smooth or uncontested process as, over the many years that followed, there was a high flux of members in the Ruo Emoh group. Nevertheless, the Ruo Emoh savings group, as part of the broader Federation, identified strategies to access land and later housing through the People’s Housing Process (PHP), a programme initiated by the then national Department of Housing.

The Ruo Emoh group was convinced that they could build more appropriate houses than the contractor and government-led RDP approach and in June 1999 demonstrated what a people’s housing approach could entail. Within only 3 days, they built an illegal, formal “show house” on vacant land in Mitchells Plain (read the whole story here). Neighbouring residents (who were skeptical of the Ruo Emoh group) approached the Federation about the show house and saw that it offered a real, and perhaps more beneficial alternative to contractor supplied housing. The next day, however, a bulldozer demolished the show house within 3 hours. What remained, was a foot in the door: the show house resulted in negotiations for open land in the immediate vicinity.

“We built the house as a practical statement. Of course we knew that it was illegal. We knew that we would have to suffer the consequences…. We did not try to interrupt negotiations – at every time we were ready to talk. All we wanted…was to ask them to come and look at the house… to see that the people’s process is better.” – Janap Oosthuizen (cited in People’s Dialogue on Land and Shelter, Negotiating for land: the construction and demolition of Ruo Emoh’s show house in Cape Town in August 1999.)

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Archie Olkers presenting the model of the show house that was build in 1999.


In 1999, therefore, the Ruo Emoh group, supported by the South African Homeless People’s Federation and uTshani Fund purchased a piece of undeveloped land in Colorado Park. At approximately 10,000m2 in size, the purchase of the plot enabled the community to begin designing, planning, coordinating and managing their own housing development. This people-led approach resulted in a nuanced and locally appropriate plan. Once the land was bought, applications for rezoning and subdivision were submitted to the city council and to the provincial government of the Western Cape. This initiated a slow engagement with statutes and regulations necessary to obtain subdivision clearance so that the land could be used for residential purposes.

Planning, neighbourhood, and organising 


Community-led planning and designing of the Ruo Emoh housing project


Once the Ruo Emoh savings group
 had applied for subdivision clearance, approval from the surrounding middle-class neighbourhood, Colorado Park, was required. At this stage, however, the Colorado Ratepayers Association (CRA) and other neighbours raised numerous objections. The objections were based on the assumption that the Ruo Emoh development would lower property values and strain basic service infrastructure for water, electricity and sewage. There was also a perception that linked backyard dwellers with criminal activity – introducing drugs and other vices into the area. Ironically, many who objected had erected informal structures in their own back yards to accommodate children and relatives. Finally, after five years of back and forth, the subdivision was approved on 26 June 2006. From this date, the rezoning and sub-division clearance was valid for five years. Within this time frame, the Ruo Emoh group needed to meet certain legal requirements.


Ruo Emoh land purchased by the community with the assistance of uTshani Fund and the Federation

From 2006 to 2010 the project was put on hold due to ongoing objections by neighbours and ratepayers. This delay had serious ramifications. Towards the end of 2010 the community and support organisations panicked with the realisation that the rezoning and subdivision clearance would lapse in mid 2011. Through negotiations the city committed to an in-principle agreement that assured the continuation of the project even after the official lapse of the rezoning and sub-division clearance.

After 12 years of multiple setbacks, groundwork infrastructure was installed on the Ruo Emoh site on 8 June 2011. The community’s spurt of fresh hope 
and drive for the project was however, short lived. Shortly after the contractor initiated the groundwork infrastructure installation, ratepayers supported by
 the local councilor attempted to
 disrupt construction. In some cases, physical conflict was narrowly avoided 
as ratepayers stood in front of bulldozers to stop the groundwork. Under political pressure the city reneged on the in-principle agreement and in July 2011 uTshani Fund (as the developer) received a “cease works order” from the city. The project was stopped at significant cost (and penalties) to the developer with half the infrastructure left incomplete in the ground. Needless to say, the patience, fortitude and planning of an organised community, who wanted to build their families a safe home was left shattered. Despite repeated attempts to engage amicably and to explain the details of 
the development, the ratepayers and the local councilor would not agree to the project’s continuation.
 As a result of these objections, the developer and Ruo Emoh community reluctantly ceded to a lower density 
for the project. Whereas the land was originally slated for 100 two-storey houses, the project was reduced to 49 single-storey houses. This compromise meant that fewer housing beneficiaries 
in the Ruo Emoh group would receive 
a house as part of the project, and those who did would need to pay more. It also meant that at a time when there was a cry for medium to high-density housing across South Africa (which would incorporate cross-subsidisation and innovate building methods when using state subsidies) an opportunity was lost to create a people-centred project and process.

From 2012 – Restarting and regaining momentum

FEDUP and uTshani Fund, assisted by Peoples Environmental Planning (PEP) worked tirelessly to find funding, re-unite the community and overcome the institutional and administrative hurdles needed to restart Ruo Emoh.

Despite the financial and emotional setback, the community decided to continue with an application to extend subdivision for a further 5 years. After eighteen months and numerous meetings with the sub-council, the city council’s Spatial Planning, Environment and Land Use Management Committee (SPELUM) approved the extension of subdivision in November 2012.

Subsequent to the extension of sub-division (which was valid for a period of 5 years) the project was once again stalled. Put simply the finances no longer made sense – given the amount of available state subsidies and the amount already lost due to the incomplete infrastructure installation and associated penalties. A series of drawn-out internal negotiations between the Ruo Emoh residents and support NGOs followed which resulted in a financial agreement to submit a new application to the Provincial government for an increased subsidy quantum. This amount was approved at the end of 2015. This left just one year to meet the conditions of subdivision that lapsed in early 2017. The most vital of these conditions were:

  1. An approved beneficiary list submitted and accepted by Province
  2. The installation of all infrastructure (civil and electrical)
  3. The construction of a boundary wall (around the development) at the cost of the developer
  4. The submission of a homeowner’s constitution with the local land use management department
Installation of the groundwork and building process of the Ruo Emoh housing project

Installation of the groundwork and building process of the Ruo Emoh housing project

PEP was appointed to oversee and manage this process with the support of Ruo Emoh residents and Melanie Johnson, who acted as social facilitator on behalf of FEDUP and the SA SDI Alliance. What is noteworthy is that the cost of many of the above requirements was born by the community (e.g. constructing the boundary wall and ensuring site security). Since Ruo Emoh had experienced numerous hurdles, friction and division between community members lead to conflict around approved beneficiaries and plot allocations. These complexities were ably negotiated by the SA SDI Alliance social facilitator. Despite a number of setbacks and many sleepless nights, subdivision clearance was granted in December 2016. This was a significant breakthrough for all involved and testament to the hard work and dedication of Ruo Emoh community and its support NGOs. At the end of 2016 all that remained was to construct the houses.


Especially, the youngster enjoying the safe streets of Ruo Emoh

Due to delays in releasing the subsidy and a number of onerous administrative tasks, housing construction only began in August 2017. Given the nature of the project, short time-frames and restriction on state finance, a “sweat equity”
or PHP self-build option was never going to be feasible. Community input in the design and layout was extensive. Mellon Housing was appointed as contractor and all houses were completed by December 22nd, 2017. On the same day, families received their title deeds and moved into their new homes. The Ruo Emoh residents paid the R6 500 per title deed, through a loan provided from People’s led fund, which will be paid back full within one year.


Ruo Emoh residents and PEP celebrating the happy end of the project with a community braai