Cities Need to Plan with the Poor, Not for the Poor

By Felicity Kitchin · 6 Feb 2013

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Picture: A South African shack settlement in an urban area courtesy jason&molly/Flickr.
Picture: A South African shack settlement in an urban area courtesy jason&molly/Flickr.
“People who live in the shacks have other people planning for their lives; whatever they get is not planned with them; there are people planning for them.” – Resident of Siyanda, eThekwini

Recent riots in Zamdela in the Free State have brought the issue of community participation in development decision-making into sharp focus. Zamdela revealed a complete lack of regard for an affected community’s input into a key decision that would have far reaching implications for their lives. It is an example of how tragically wrong things can go when communities are not consulted by the state. Four people lost their lives in the ensuing protests and clashes with the police.

The story of Zamdela, while it made headlines for the violent nature of the protests, is not really a unique story for South Africans. We have become accustomed to regular media reports of so-called “service delivery” protests.

At the heart of the issue appears to be the problem that people are not being listened to by the state.

Recent research conducted by the Community Agency for Social Enquiry (CASE) with funding support from the Ford Foundation’s Southern Africa office, probed whether community participation is working; especially in the way municipalities interact with marginalised residents in terms of their housing strategies. The research hoped to improve communication between local government authorities and marginalised residents.

South African citizens are promised effective community participation through several legislative mechanisms including the Constitution, which focus on a range of socio-economic rights and promotes developmental, inclusive and participatory local government. The law requires local government to work with its citizens and communities. For example, ward committees should allow citizens to voice their concerns to promote community participation.

CASE’s research focused on community participation in eThekwini (Durban) and Johannesburg. It found that in both cities a range of community consultation processes are undertaken including the required consultation associated with the Integrated Development Planning (IDP) process, and consultation around specific issues such as budgeting and housing, including in-situ upgrading, removals, and housing types. The methods used for these vary between cities.

The City of Johannesburg has structures and processes to facilitate and enhance community involvement including community based planning, integrated development planning, mayoral road shows, inner-city summits and a regional stakeholder summit. In addition, the City has ward committees, elected ward councillors and elected community based workers.

eThekwini also has various structures such as the Public Participation Programme, Big Mama Workshops, IDP/Budget Hearings and Participation, Stakeholders’ Participation Programme, and the Citizens’ Action Support Programme. These operate at four levels, namely ward (ward committees), according to zones (zonal stakeholders’ forums), regional and citywide levels (networks and stakeholders’ forums such as the Big Mama workshop series).

CASE’s research found that despite the legislated requirements and the structures and processes that both municipalities have in place to engage in community participation, these do not always work. Consultation is often seen as token or time-consuming and does not necessarily mean that residents have a meaningful contribution to government’s planning and implementation.

The research confirmed that community participation in housing-related decisions remains inadequate. In some cases poor people’s housing strategies are in conflict with competing interests and authorities, and they are removed from settlements. Criminalization of their activities by the authorities increases their vulnerability, with non-South Africans and women particularly at risk.

Since 1994, national government has provided over 2.3 million houses and in the last eight years has developed policies focused on in situ upgrading. In other words, improving informal settlements where people have already erected structures for shelter.

However, housing continues to be built on poorly located land far from work opportunities and social facilities. In addition, the upgrading of informal settlements and the provision of low-income rental units has not met demand. The recent debacle in Lenasia where government demolished houses built by residents who were duped by fraudsters into buying illegally secured land, reveals the extent of the shortage of affordable housing in South Africa.

Research in both cities indicated that there is a growing problem of homelessness and inadequate housing. This huge demand for housing has led to the poor resorting to “illegal” housing options such as the occupation of bad buildings, settlement in informal areas, or homelessness.

Bad buildings are poorly maintained buildings, usually in the inner city, which threaten the health and safety of occupants. Johannesburg has approximately1500 bad buildings and at least 180 informal settlements. eThekwini has approximately 588 informal settlements with the average size being 570 dwellings.

Fieldwork and documentation of experiences found similar situations of overcrowded, unsanitary and unsafe houses with structural problems and generally unhealthy living conditions in both cities.

Location of housing remains critical as economic opportunities for the poor are so important.  Poor people try to locate close to areas where they can find economic opportunities, which often brings them into conflict with the municipality. Respondents in the focus groups and the survey highlighted the availability of employment opportunities, transport networks and schools as key motivations for the location of housing.

At the same time, local government is faced with serious urban management challenges, particularly those linked to housing. Municipalities have limited funding and capacity despite now being able to be accredited to carry out housing-related functions. On the one hand, however, although local government faces severe challenges in providing adequate and appropriately located housing to the poor, it has also acted against “illegal” housing strategies adopted by the poor (including evictions from informal settlements and “bad buildings”, and actions to prevent the homeless from settling in urban areas).

Court cases that have followed these actions have concluded that government must provide for those in urgent need and living in intolerable conditions, must engage meaningfully with those facing eviction, and must consider in situ upgrading and the provision of alternative accommodation in these cases.

Both cities have made commitments to make public participation an integral part of the planning, budgeting and service delivery processes. Interviews with City officials found some who were genuinely committed to ensuring that affected communities were involved. However, this often seems to be more related to informing the community of what is going to happen to them rather than working with them to plan for their future.

As one City of Johannesburg housing official interviewed by CASE put it, “Community participation processes are often seen as more of a public affirmation or a checklist exercise than a genuine attempt at capturing the developmental aspirations of the people.”

At the same time, the views expressed by residents ranged from frustration to hope.

“There are projects here that the municipality have brought which costs about R60 million; you would find that they build something that is not necessary to us, like fixing parks, roads, stadiums and everything, but we as community which voted for ANC to win, we live in the shacks.” – Resident of Jadhu Place, Springfiled, eThekwini


“It is the ANC Government’s policy that everybody must have a shelter and that would not change. As we are complaining that they are very slow but the Government’s policy we know it is there and would not change. As we live here, we know that one day we would get the house as they do in other places.” – Resident of Jadhu Place, Springfiled, eThekwini

This research showed that community participation for residents living in “bad” buildings and informal settlements is inefficient where it exists, and non-existent in some places. The study indicated that the only interaction residents felt they had had with authorities was when the police or metro police were “harassing” them for identity documents. Where any interaction on housing with authorities existed, this was limited to communication regarding eviction rather than long-term solutions to the residents’ housing problems.

This has given rise to perceptions that politicians only seek out the community during the election period. None of the respondents interviewed mentioned any interaction in the participatory mechanisms for local development listed by the municipalities. In the affected people’s eyes, the enforcement of municipal by-laws seems to be the defining feature of municipal-community interaction.

Finally, given some of the problems civil society organisations experience with engaging formally with the municipalities in Johannesburg and Durban, civil society groups feels that they have to fight for the right to participate as collective efforts have been made to fail. Protests and the media have often become the outlets for people’s expression of frustration with lack of consultation and expression of their voice.

A key conclusion of this study is the importance of effective communication. When considering housing options for the poor it is important that issues around participation of the poor are addressed in conjunction with those affected. Far more emphasis should be placed on effective communication with ward councillors, NGOs and residents.

Kitchin is a consultant researcher at the Community Agency for Social Enquiry (CASE), an independent South African NGO focusing on socio-economic and policy research. The research report, "Enhancing the Voices of the Poor" (PDF), is availabe on the CASE website.

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