“Go there with no expectations, go there to learn, not to impose. Don’t overpromise. Don’t promise at all. And find out how to get communities excited again, how to get them to work with you because they have been through so much, they are frustrated.”
This is how two of PEP’s community facilitators, Dolly Mdzanga-Fanaphi and Sihle Mntuna, put the difference between what it meant to embark on a community facilitation process rather than a mere consultation or enumeration. The challenge and experience of this year’s collaboration was exactly that – how to do accountable and responsible research in informal settlements? How to start a collaborative, people-centred process that has tangible and intangible outcomes; that benefits communities directly and creates a space of learning and dreaming for all partners involved?
Over the course of four consecutive Wednesdays from the end of February to the end of March 2022, as well as with two additional sharing sessions, our group visited four small-sized settlements – NN Section, QA section, QQ Island, and Masikhule – in Khayelitsha’s Site B. It was the 5th studio collaboration between People’s Environmental Planning (PEP), and UCT’s African Centre for Cities’ Southern Urbanism programme. The collaboration consisted of a team of 11 Master’s students, four from the University of Basel and 7 from UCT who were supported by three PEP staff members and 8 to 12 community research partners and interpreters, plus myself, an anthropology PhD student. Considering the amount and variety of people that came together, Geetika Anand, ACC’s course facilitator, captured it most poignantly by saying that “we were more like 50 partners, not just 3 partners.”
Collaborative Motivations and Reasons
“Why are we doing this? We don’t agree with the status quo, with the way toilet, public spaces, housing is managed. We don’t argue for new policies. We show on the ground to make things different, something different in the process. In order to achieve these goals, we need to build a relationship with the community.” (Programme Coordinator Noah Schermbrucker)
This year’s collaboration aimed to create a space in which groups with various backgrounds, expectations, and interests could come together and learn about each other’s perspectives and life realities and discuss and test out particular development models and projects. Its aim and motivation were manifold:
- For the PEP team, an NGO that specializes in land use management, participatory planning, informal settlement upgrading, and basic service provision, it meant building relationships with communities and learning about their priorities, social composition, and leadership structures. In short, it meant to “catalyse energies” and kick-start a “scoping” process, as it is put in a more technical lingo, to identify potential upgrading interventions – interventions that can be embraced and driven by the affected communities and their leadership.
- For the students, it meant to take their theoretical engagement with southern urbanism and subaltern cities out of the classroom and directly into the settlements. For them, it meant to expand their horizons of the lived and harsh urban realities in South Africa, to connect with people outside of their usual circles, as well as to further develop and refine multiple qualitative research skills and future research interests.
- Lastly, for the community partners, it equally meant to expand their skill sets of making introductions, communicating with students, and translating and interpreting their neighbors’ and communities’ viewpoints and living conditions. While also receiving a small supportive source of income, the research partners got a chance to reflect upon their very own neighbors and communities, by seeing and learning “what I haven’t seen before,” as one community partner put it during the final sharing session.
The primary objective of all the groups involved in this “multi-people partnership,” said Geetika Anand, was to “capacitate learning” and to produce “responsible research that is also relevant for the people we are learning with.” This process of learning may then facilitate and “ensure continuity” by building a more long-term relationship that goes beyond extractive research logics of information collection and formal interviewing. For both ACC and PEP, it is evident that one cannot simply land up in the settlements or “dive-bomb in there with a project,” as Noah Schermbrucker straightforwardly expressed it. In other words, to create a people-centred approach, one first needs an understanding of the respective communities and also a relationship with them, before one can roll out specific interventions and development models. This obviously needs a considerable amount of time, sensitivity, and flexibility.
Research Approach and Methods
The difficulty with this fifth studio collaboration was not only to find the right balance between timely processes and concrete project outcomes, but also to work with communities in which PEP has not previously worked. Entirely new relationships were to be formed. For this reason, four small-sized settlements were selected with the help of the local ward councilor. Each had around 50 households – a small size which was intentionally chosen by PEP to not overburden student’s research scope and to facilitate a more consistent and continuous relationship-building and learning process with the goal of a concrete project implementation.
The different methods and tools students used ranged from semi-structured interviewing, community mapping, and basic service assessments to walkabouts, picture-taking, and group planning and sharing sessions. Students learned qualitative research skills, to familiarize themselves with housing conditions and informal settlements, to write analytically and more accessibly for a wider audience, as well as to navigate the various layers of this collaborative practice. As an anthropologist in training, it felt that all of us were becoming ethnographers in the making.
Some students had never been to Khayelitsha or had never been to an informal settlement before. Some had just arrived in South Africa a week or two prior to starting their Southern Urbanism programme. All were excited but pretty much didn’t know what to expect. After splitting into four smaller research groups, each assigned to two to three community experts and interpreters, all groups went their way to start interviewing, do mapping and infrastructure assessments, and mingle with the communities. The studio, as Geetika pointed out, helped students getting “an exposure to Cape Town and what kind of spaces exist” and also helped them in forming “a cohort feeling.” In short, “the studio was a way of getting to know the city.”
Despite some initial self-doubts students quickly eased into their tasks and each group conducted 7-10 interviews in each of the four settlements over the course of four weeks. The interviews took place wherever there was enough space to accommodate the interviewees, interpreters, and student groups. Groups were often invited into people’s living rooms, stood in frontyards and passageways, or used “public spaces,” such as an empty crèche and church structure in NN section.
The interviews themselves were initially structures around guiding questions which the ACC team, in consultation with PEP, had prepared to ask community members about their personal histories, housing conditions and aspirations, and basic service challenges. Through the course of the research, students and their research partners developed their own ways to depart from and build on these guiding questions. In some interviews, the students made use of aerial maps of the settlements to elicit more narratives about housing histories, spatial orientation and pathways, and lighting and security concerns. The interviews, however, often also turned into more informal conversations about people’s living arrangements, community organization, desires for public housing, and employment challenges.
Two additional sharing sessions followed the four weeks of interviewing and relationship-building. The first of these meetings was used to present initial findings, share one’s impressions, and generally talk about the group interview experiences. Students made presentations using posters and community maps that not only highlighted certain landmarks, safety and basic service features, and conceptual themes, but also reflected on the group process, and its interactional dynamics and challenges, e.g. occasional language barriers, the communicating of professional roles, and the overall difficulty of wanting to build long-term relationships, while having comparably little time to do so. The second sharing meeting comprised a return visit to seek out the interviewees and share the first write-ups of their biographical and household narratives. This helped to double-check facts and spellings and assured community members about the type of information that was collected from them and how they were represented. It was another step along the way of building relationships and directly involving communities in the research process and being transparent and reciprocal about it.
Initial Interview Findings and Housing Conditions
“…if there can be a way of building houses for this place, or just implementation, whatever, that you can do, that would be highly appreciated. I don’t want to say what, whatever you can.” (Local Research Partner Soyama Botha from NN Section)
There was a common sentiment in many interviews and conversations that residents “are waiting for a decent house” because they neither have the money to keep moving around nor that they can afford to considerably change their existing structures. Research partner Thembelani from Masikhule remarked matter-of-factly: “There is no place for us. They keep on promising. There is no one planning for us. We are here for 30 years. I was born in this street. I am still living here.” Among many, there is little hope or prospect to receive state assistance or relocation to formal structures. The only changes the Masikhule settlement, for example, has seen in all these years were the arrival of toilets in 2014 and electricity connections in 2013.
When talking to two community leaders on one of our return visits about their settlements, they made it clear that “now there is no space anymore to expand. You see the half meter between these structures here. We don’t have the money to buy other houses. (…) There is no land. The space is finished.” In other words, there is little space left for informal housing extensions. In the meantime, people mobilise the little space they have with maximum flexibility. House structures are turned into retail stores, barber and printing shops, crèches, or even churches.
Apart from the desires and needs for decent housing, most interviewees discussed safety concerns, youth unemployment, flooding, blocked toilets and drainage lines, insufficient waste collection and darkness at night – problems too common all across South Africa’s settlements and beyond. For example, many interviewees mentioned that it is too dark in the pathways and streets at night, and that in several places lighting could help, particularly solar lighting for security during load shedding. In some settlements, like Masikhule, there is a cut-off time at 10pm after which nobody tries to venture out or use the outdoor toilets but that is also not always possible. Student researchers who worked in the QA section heard from one of the residents: “We are scared to walk at night because of the lack of lighting but still go to the shops at night nonetheless.” Other than solar lighting, some interviewees also suggested “painting” or building “fences” around their settlements to improve their security situation. When there is no outside lighting, there is this “sense of dark tunnels,” especially for women, as it was described during one final student poster presentation. Solar power can thus be discussed with the communities as one alternative and complementary source of energy.
While the National Department of Human Settlements is preparing and announcing major policy shifts away from the top-structure delivery model, commonly known as RDP or BNG housing, dwellers in the informal settlements such as QQ Island, QA Section, NN Section, and Masikhule are left to their own devices and rather rely on partnerships with CBOs or NGOs, such as PEP, to minimally and incrementally improve their housing as well as public infrastructure. The expectations and aspirations, however, persist among most residents that they should be entitled “to get houses.” Mr. Mhlangenqaba Pike from the NN Section expressed it clearly: “Up until today few people have got houses. Not everyone has got a house. Even those core houses, those matchboxes around here, are only 13% in Khayelitsha. 87% don’t have a house. People are staying or sitting in temporal structures (…) because you are waiting for a house from the government or for a subsidy. (…) Our people are tired of moving from A to B.” Time will tell whether residents are willing to accept and embrace upgrading initiatives that help them improve their infrastructural conditions in the meantime but that won’t deliver public housing for them.
A People-Centred Approach
Overall, the process was a “huge success, because students have experimented with interviews, they have come back with such rich experience, it’s amazing” explains Geetika Anand enthusiastically. Through this collaborative studio, students learned about “qualitative research,” and how to write in two ways, academically but also more accessibly. They learned about “the thematic of housing and informal settlements,” and lastly, they also got a “flavor of how you work collaboratively at multiple levels.”
As with any people-centred, collaborative approach, many methodological details and communicative challenges remain and have room for future improvement: For example, students might want clearer directives and more briefings about PEP’s previous interventions and community communications. Before jumping into interviews and settlement walkabouts, students might also want to receive more preparation, background, and warm-up meetings with their local research partners to manage expectations and positional hierarchies. Moreover, PEP faces the problem of how to communicate not only with community leadership but with the entire community. While discussing leadership accountability of committees in informal settlements across the country, Trevor Ngwane, author of Amakomiti – Grassroots Democracy in South African Shack Settlements (2021), came to a similar realization: “Demanding and enforcing accountability is easier when one can point to procedures and processes that have been agreed upon and are known by all” (p.64).
Regardless of these requests and demands for more tangible procedures and outcomes, it remains crucial to maintain an open and people-centred approach. Dolly Mdzanga-Fanaphi most clearly conveyed it: “Communities are complex. It is a learning space. You need to give students the space, don’t give them orders. They can do mistakes, but we are relaxed. We thought it might be a good learning experience. (…) It was positive for us. We started building relationships. People now know us.”
Written by Laurin Baumgardt, PhD Candidate, Department of Anthropology, Rice University on 16 May 2022.