“This project will go down in the history books of human settlements. It shows what can be done when the community works with partners in government. In order to make government work for informal settlements, we have to fuse the conventional with the unconventional, otherwise its not going to work.” This is what Greg Exford, Informal Settlements Manager at the City of Cape Town, had to say about the success of the Mtshini Wam Partnership project.
Mtshini Wam is a densely populated informal settlement located in what used to be an open space between formal subsidised houses. The settlement is located close to an industrial park about 1km northwest of Century City and the Canal Walk shopping mall in Cape Town.
Community members living in this settlement faced many daily challenges. Narrow pathways between shacks were prone to flooding, which made transportation difficult, and increased the chances of contracting water-borne illnesses. Mtshini Wam resident, Nokwazi Klaas explains, “There were no passageways and when there were fires it was virtually impossible to get into the settlement. All the toilets were on the outskirts and there were only three water taps for over 200 households”.
To combat these dire living situations the Community Organisation Resource Centre (CORC) and the Informal Settlement Network (ISN) signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the City of Cape Town in April 2012. The memorandum focused on a participatory upgrade project of 21 informal settlements in Cape Town. Mtshini Wam was the first successful project.
During 2012, the community of Mtshini Wam initiated an innovative approach to the upgrading of their informal settlement. They utilised a process called ‘re-blocking’ where 250 shacks are rearranged into 29 clusters in accordance to a community design framework that opens up safer and more accessible public spaces, called ‘courtyards’. Luthando Klaas, a community leader and supervisor for the Mtshini Wam technical team, explains the reason for courtyards, “When they started the design process, one of the important things was to see how to improve services and improve safety and security so that police and emergency vehicles can come into the community, and the community can feel safe in their space.”
This project has been entirely community driven from the beginnings of the programme. Three community groups were responsible for different stages of the development process. The first group, mostly women who initiated the project and later assumed leadership roles, carried out a shack-to-shack count, profiling the settlement’s residents. They found that as their census continued, more and more people wanted to get involved with the project.
The second group, made up of mostly unemployed men, measured each shack in the settlement. The measurements were then scaled down to a layout plan (with the assistance, training and technical support from CORC) of the existing settlement.
Finally, the third team created a layout plan for the re-blocking of the shacks by placing cardboard cuttings on the site plan. This went through several drafts before the community accepted one that satisfied the needs of everyone.
45 short-term employment opportunities have been created through the Extended Public Works Programme (EPWP) for this Mtshini Wam Partnership project, which has a special characteristic stating that the community has to take full ownership of the development. There are seven teams, made up solely of Mtshini Wam residents, responsible for different aspects of upgrading the residences. The teams are gardening, technical, carpentry, cleaning, compacting, demolition, and building. By doing this, the EPWP initiative builds on the community’s initiatives towards their own development, to conduct a self-census, to establish community project committees, and to design their future settlement layout.
The re-blocking of the Mtshini Wam township has changed the way government and the public view informal settlement upgrading. This particular community has demonstrated an active citizenry that is engaged in remaking their settlement into a more liveable, safe, and dignified place to live. The proactive and self-reliance of the community has spurred a renewed relationship with the City of Cape Town officials and filed officers. Not only this, but it has encouraged the residents of Mtshini Wam to keep improving their living spaces. Klaas says, “We don’t want to be in shacks forever. It does not end with iKhayalami [upgraded] shacks. The community was able to move from wooden shacks to safer structures, and now they want to move up to more livable structures for themselves – brick houses.”