CAPE TOWN, South Africa, Dec 14 (Thomson Reuters Foundation)
- I n Cape Town, the slums of Flamingo Crescent and Santini are
just 20 kms apart but the gap in the standard of living in these
two settlements is being hailed as an example of how residents
can actively upgrade their own lives.
Shanty towns are a familiar sight across the picturesque
coastal city, with a third of Cape Town's 3.7 million residents
living in slums or informal settlements with limited access to
basic services, such as water, electricity and toilets.
Urbanisation is increasing with villagers flooding daily to
South Africa's second biggest city to find jobs and better
lives, increasing pressure for housing and expanding slums.
Aware that city officials were facing a 25-year backlog to
house people, one Flamingo Crescent resident took the initiative
and, working with the authorities, has managed to transform her
settlement into the envy of many slum dwellers in the city.
Maria Matthews, known to all as Auntie Marie, is a
66-year-old firebrand who has driven a community project to
bring water, electricity and toilets to every shack, changing
the lives of the 400 or so Flamingo Crescent residents.
About 900 million people now live in slum conditions
globally with limited access to basic services but campaigners
hope this small community, with its vital community lead, could
set a precedent and give others a glimmer of hope.
"When I first came here (11 years ago), there was nothing,
it was an open field," community leader Matthews told the
Thomson Reuters Foundation in her cosy, ensuite home in Flamingo
Crescent that she shares with her partner Patrick Edward du
"Law enforcement brought people here to stay until they
could find suitable accommodation elsewhere. That was for three
months, but the three months became nine years. We had to dig
holes to go to the toilet. It was like a pigsty."
Matthews, together with other residents, decided things
needed to change.
She discovered the Informal Settlement Network (ISN), a
community based movement that engages government to improve the
lives of the urban poor by addressing security of tenure and
better services, and worked with them on Flamingo Crescent.
This innovative partnership between Flamingo Crescent
residents, Cape Town city, and non-government organisations has
brought taps, toilets and electricity to every shack.
It involved a process called 're-blocking' where shacks were
demolished, the settlement layout re-designed and infrastructure
brought in to allow for basic services of water, sanitation and
electricity. Shacks were then re-built.
The shacks of Flamingo Crescent are now vibrantly coloured,
the streets have names, wheelie bins are neatly lined up outside
the front gates, and mail is delivered to all residents.
The project took three years from inception to
completion, but regional co-ordinator for Cape Town City
Council, Levona Powell, said it showed it could be done if all
parties worked together.
"It's the ultimate goal of the city to give every single
resident a house, but whether we reach that goal in my lifetime,
I'm not sure. There are people who have been on the housing list
for 40 years," she admitted.
Across town in Santini, a settlement housing about 200
people, the situation is a total contrast.
It is a maze of tightly packed, dilapidated shacks strewn
with rubbish with no garbage collection, no drainage and only
one tap for all residents.
Officials are aware that a lack of basic services in
informal settlements poses many challenges. Crime is rife and
health risks severe, but so far disputes amongst residents have
stopped any progress in upgrading Santini.
"There are only 7 toilets for 150 people," Grace Lebakeng, a
young mother from Santini told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"We can't go out at night because there are many criminals.
So we have a bucket to go to the toilet at night. And our
children are always ill. They play by the toilets. There are no
With no electricity, residents rely on candles and fires for
light, leading to frequent fires.
On New Year's Day in 2013 the worst slum fire in recent
history left over 4,000 people homeless and at least five people
dead in Cape Town's largest settlement, Khayelitsha, that is
home about 400,000 people.
Powell from Cape Town City Council said authorities were
struggling to cope with these sprawling settlements and
explained that people living in these conditions were insecure
"The gap between the rich and the poor is huge, coupled with
the global phenomenon of urbanisation, the challenges are
clear," she explained in her office in Cape Town.
"Urbanisation needs innovative ideas, we embrace that, we
can't run away."
ISN's national leader Nkokheli Ncambele said it was a
massive problem as the conditions people were living were
"Once a settlement exists, the government must provide basic
services, but the city can't win the battle as settlements grow
by night," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The upgrading of Flamingo Crescent seemed insurmountable at
first to many.
For while the city committed resources to providing
infrastructure and services, the residents were asked to commit
to paying 20 percent of the cost of the individual structures.
That was a big call for Flamingo Crescent where 90 percent
of residents are unemployed but Matthews convinced people.
"You can't take a bread and not pay for it, because that's
stealing," she said as she explained how she won over residents
in time. "We have to contribute."
Currently 22 pilot projects are underway in Cape Town but
communities must agree before upgrading can happen.
In Santini upgrading was due to have started this year, but
local politics spurred fear in the community. The process has
come to a standstill, to the dismay of many residents.
"We want the re-blocking but some people fear they will lose
their houses and then have nothing," Lebakeng said.
For Matthews the years of work were worth it.
"We don't want luxury, we just want to be comfortable," she
said. "Luxury can come afterwards, if there is an opportunity,
But if you know what you want in life and you do have a chance,
(Editing by Belinda Goldsmith @BeeGoldsmith; Please credit the
Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson
Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights,
trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)