By Ava Rose Hoffman (on behalf of CORC)
In this blog, the SA SDI Alliance speaks with Nkokheli Ncambele—ISN Coordinator of the Western Cape—to learn about how the participation process functions on the ground during informal settlement upgrading, and in particular, reblocking initiatives . Reflecting upon the Alliance’s early experiences with re-blocking in Sheffield Road (2010-2011) and Mtshini Wam (2012-2013), Nkokheli highlights the value of building partnerships between informal settlements, support NGOs, and local governments.
How has the re-blocking process enabled residents to better engage with city officials or service providers in the long run? Has the re-blocking process enabled citizens to become more knowledgeable about how to interact with the state?
In our project called Sheffield Road, the government was saying [to community members] that they can’t do anything in the road reserve. But when the community started engaging with the municipality, the community learned how to negotiate with the city, [using] their tools—starting from profiling and enumerations. The enumeration is what helped them identify their problem, and then they start engaging [with the City]. Through the engagement they decided to start reblocking cluster one. When they finished Cluster One, everyone in the community was saying, ‘This thing is working, we want this thing [reblocking.’ Then they started rolling it out in the community. While they were in Cluster 3, the government saw the value of re-blocking, and then they came and installed 15 toilets that were not there before. So, that exercise [served to] teach a lesson to the government, and teach a lesson to the community.
In Mtshini Wam, each and every winter they [the community] experienced flooding. And when they went to government, government was saying they can’t do anything [improvements] there because there is no space. And the community started organizing their general meetings, and trying to find a solution. Because, remember, they are the ones living in those conditions, so they had to come [up] with the solutions, and their solution was re-blocking. They went on an exchange to Sheffield Road to see what other communities were doing. When they came back, they started engaging with the people [in their community], and the technical teams of CORC and ISN went to Mtshini Wam and started helping them [with] how to design their community [reblocked layout]. At the end of the day, even if you can go today to Mtshini Wam, they will tell you that this re-blocking, it helped us a lot because, they were living in bad conditions. They were affected by their health because of the gray water that was smelling.
How did that engagement or negotiation with the state play out after the re-blocking was complete? Was there any continued engagement between the community and the state after the process was complete?
There is always a question of, ‘What else after this? What are we going to do?’ Obviously engagement is still happening between the community and the municipality, because, remember, these people, they don’t have a title deed. So they have to negotiate for the title deed. So now, their engagement is on another level. It’s not on the level of shelter; it’s on another level of getting houses, adequate houses. I remember they finished their design, where they said what they want: double stories where everyone can fit. And they even went to Joe Slovo in Langa to see how the design of Joe Slovo looked like, because it’s what they want to implement in their community.
Do you think the re-blocking projects have helped to change power dynamics within communities or empower more vulnerable members of communities?
I think firstly, what re-blocking brings to the community is security. It brings the trust between the community itself, because where they were residing before, no one would know their neighbours. But after the re-blocking, now, everyone is known in the community. It’s a community, its not an informal settlement anymore, it’s a community where the people of that community have pride in what they did. It also brings trust to the leadership—the leaders are the ones who will take us to the house.
Who would you define as vulnerable members of a community? Do you think that re-blocking has helped those vulnerable members get more of a voice in their communities?
I’m not going to answer your question directly, but I will always come out with an explanation.
If you go to Mtshini Wam, there were people that were not having income, not even a cent—so they were vulnerable in the sense that they don’t receive anything— [while] other community members were working, and received income. When we started, there were people that were vulnerable, and you can see that their situation is very bad, but once we brought the re-blocking concept, where we manage to employ 45 people, those that were vulnerable earn something. It’s where they change their lives, you know. And now, there is no one—I can guarantee to you today—that is very vulnerable. Everyone is in the same level because of re-blocking. That’s why I’m saying, re-blocking, it brings a lot of things. It brings job opportunities, it brings basic services, it’s not only about changing the structure, it’s about what government can play in your community when you say, ‘I want re-blocking.’
A community where no one is working, and no one is receiving a grant—that is what I call a vulnerable community, because there is no income.
How did communities and the City change through the process of re-blocking? What was that mutual learning process like?
What I can say is that, the city has changed through the system that the people brought… The government at that time would tell the community: ‘We are going to put the toilet here.’ But the challenge of that community is not a toilet. The community wants electricity. So, once we start engaging with the government, in 2010, it’s when the government started listening, now that the people know what they want. We are not fighting with their ideas, but we want them to listen to us. Because we are the ones who are residing in those conditions. We are the ones who are walking in the dark at night.
It shows that people learn a lot and the city learned, because the city put a lot of basic services in different communities. The communities that started before 1994, they’ve got basic services now. It shows that the city learned how to listen to the people. And the people know how to engage with the city now. Because the leadership—you will find different leadership going to see the mayor, you will find that the mayor is going to the communities—there is that engagement now. Re-blocking and engagement—having the ISN involved—changed a lot of people.