Civil Society’s reorientation: Informal settlement clusters

Jun 20, 2019 | Blog

Media Room Blog

Civil Society’s reorientation: Informal settlement clusters

Jun 20, 2019 | Blog

Civil Society’s reorientation: informal settlement clusters, a means to improve community participation and bring systemic change in local governance, by Dr Hloniphile Simelane

‘How can someone participate (effectively) in something she/he doesn’t understand?’ (resident of an informal settlement referring to Integrated Development Planning).

‘They (municipal officials) don’t know what we suffer from (resident of an informal settlement)’.

These quotes reflect the frustrations felt by residents from informal settlements in Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Municipality and Emalahleni Local Municipality around poor participation and marginalisation in local governance through such processes as Integrated Development Planning (IDP) and the Municipal Budgeting Process. They also give grounds for the growing trend of informal communities banding together to pursue informal settlement cluster advocacy to discuss and address their participation challenges and speak with one voice. In response to this trend, Planact has begun providing the much needed support to the communities by facilitating the instituting of two informal settlement clusters for improved participation in Gauteng and Mpumalanga provinces. The intent of this article is to educate civil society and local government officials about informal settlement clusters and to encourage embracing their potential as a means to improved community participation practices.

Whilst the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals advances a pledge by United Nation states pledging “no one will be left behind” and to “endeavour to reach the furthest behind first“ , African states – like many others globally – have not fully translated this call into practice. All too often the culprit is local governance. Everyday realities show that poor community participation in local governance processes continues to thrive and that this adversely affects the development of disadvantaged communities such as informal settlements. Here in South Africa, this manifests in informal settlements characterised by poor provision of basic services such as water, electricity and sanitation (see for example Un-habitat 2016, Huchzermeyer 2016 and Bohler-Muller 2016).

In fact, evidence suggests that across African states there has been inadequate investment of resources and efforts to ensure that this pledge is realised within the context of informal settlements. It is not surprising therefore that informal settlement communities are perpetually left behind in local governance practices and the development process in general.

Policy framework supporting community participation

What exactly is meant by ‘leaving no one behind’ and how does this relate to informal settlement? The sad reality is an ongoing paradox. On the one hand is the development agenda of ‘improving the welfare of societies: ending extreme poverty (in all its forms), reducing inequalities, and addressing discriminatory barriers’ (Stuart and Samman 2017:2); on the other is the lived reality, which sees residents of many informal settlements crying foul because of poor basic services in their communities and municipalities’ inadequate commitment to addressing the glaring inequalities. In South Africa this paradox is further exacerbated: frustrations of informal residents run high because despite progressive policies and programmes introduced by the government to improve the living conditions of previously disadvantaged communities under the apartheid regime, development practices remain largely ineffective. In essence, these practices have not brought about meaningful and widespread change to the everyday lives of the urban poor.

Translating progressive policy into progressive practice requires that community participation must be a prime point of focus. To this end, Chapter 7 of the Constitution of South Africa 1996 (section 152) and the Local Government Municipal System Act 2000 can be utilised to promote the involvement of communities and community based organisations in local governance. Effective collaboration between the communities and municipalities on issues of local governance must be cultivated to dislodge current practices in which communities get left behind with limited opportunities for participation in decision-making concerning their development.

The most relevant policy supporting this policy/practice shift is the Upgrading of Informal Settlements Programme (UISP), introduced in 2004 to promote incremental insitu upgrading of informal settlements. However, despite these progressive policies and earlier programmes such as the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), informal settlements lament their marginalisation as they see the city develop around them.

As a way of pushing back at this marginalisation, informal settlements are self-organising into clusters in the hopes of projecting their voices and thus their needs more effectively. The sentiments expressed in the opening quotes were confirmed by one hundred and fifty representatives of ten informal settlements who are already part of the two clusters of informal settlements from Emalahleni and Ekurhuleni Municipalities. In a dialogue on community participation facilitated by Planact on March 7, 2019, these representatives criticised the municipalities for failing to prioritise the participation of informal settlements and failing to educate them on community participation in local governance processes such as the integrated development planning and municipal budgeting processes. A frustrated participant from an informal settlement in Gauteng province lamented: ‘how can someone participate in something they don’t understand’ (participant in an informal settlements participation dialogue facilitated by Planact, March 7, 2019). This widespread sentiment along with observations of ineffectual participatory practices in the field have prompted Planact to facilitate and support the formation of informal settlement clusters.

Informal settlements left behind in community participation and the development process

Currently, the prevailing belief in informal settlements is that the municipalities are not committed to improving community participation in local governance. In fact during the Planact-facilitated dialogue on public participation, representatives of the ten informal settlements made the following arguments which can be divided into failings in the participatory process and the resultant development practice:


 ‘I last saw the Councillor, three years ago, when he was campaigning during local government elections’.

‘We are not informed about the process’ (referring to the IDP).

‘We only see the budget on paper not included in its formulation’.

We only see the municipal budget on paper, they (municipal officials) do not involve us in the budget formulation processes.


They sometimes include a project we need in the IDP but do not implement it’.

When you think big the municipality tells you to think small’. This resident went on to give an example of when the community requested a health clinic but they were provided with chemical toilets.

The above statements are compelling evidence of why the residents of informal settlements feel neglected in the development process. Contrary to the call for ‘leaving no one behind’, informal settlements are indeed continuing to be left behind. Planact considers the lack of genuine participation in local governance and the failure of local government officials to prioritise participation in practice as forms of deprivation that lead to further entrenching social injustice. The formation of informal settlements clusters works towards remedying this phenomenon.

So what is the role of informal settlement clusters in advocacy?

The informal settlement clusters are an advocacy approach intended to exert pressure on the three tiers of government – local, provincial and national – to commit to addressing systemic issues impeding effective community participation. This approach brings together communities from unplanned settlements to form ‘clusters’ and in turn to collectively advocate improved community participation in local governance processes. The rationale for adopting this approach is that these communities face similar challenges such as inadequate basic services. Of paramount importance is that the residents have experiential knowledge regarding the existing barriers to participation and are therefore well-positioned to provide rich recommendations regarding how to move towards more effective community participation. For instance, in multiple platforms facilitated by Planact the residents of the informal settlements have lamented that municipal officials largely embark on technocratic approaches.

Residents assert that these top-down approaches combined with tick-the-boxes community participation exercises result in their basic services needs not being met. Sadly, communities’ frustration with this course of action all too often results in violent protests. Media coverage of the protests lead to deteriorating perceptions of these settlements and academic findings show that they in fact do little to improve service delivery. Yet as seen in a recent meeting, the frustrations are real and need a legitimate response: ‘we protest as a last resort when we have problems because it is our right’ (resident of informal settlement in a dialogue on community participation). This resident’s frustration spotlights the need to adopt new strategies for facilitating systemic change.

A collective approach, such as clustering, could amplify the voices of the informal settlements in local governance decision-making and in turn lead to just such systemic change in participatory processes. The result would inevitably be improved provision of basic services. However, it’s important to note that the cluster advocacy approach extends beyond mobilising and organising informal communities to extract information on gaps in the local governance’s community participation practices. As asserted by Friedman (2017:5) the failure of civil society organisations to use the new opportunities created by change in South Africa’ political landscape (local government elections 2016) will result in such new opportunities being hijacked by ‘the affluent and connected groups who do not need to mobilise public support – in which case it will create opportunities for elites rather than grassroots citizens’. Drawing on such observations, the informal settlement clusters will be co-tasked to devise alternative strategies to foster relationship building through legitimate public participation and to effectively advocate the responsiveness of the local government to the collective needs of the marginalised communities.

Conclusion and lessons

The cluster advocacy approach, if embraced by key community and city stakeholders, has the potential to yield positive outcomes and contribute to systemic change concerning community participation in local governance. This potential is pivotal given that there is often a direct relationship between the level of community participation and effective basic service provision. Many development practitioners, including those from international organisations such as the UN-Habitat and Cities Alliance, not to mention donors, have therefore prioritised supporting this type of systemic change in local governance practices over individual community-based projects. A reconfiguration of civil society advocacy approaches has become not only a necessity but an imperative. This begs the question: How do informal settlement clusters fit into this call? As has been shown, the informal settlement cluster approach is central in advocating for increased social justice through its potential to influence public participation in local governance. Critically, this approach brings ordinary residents of informal settlements into decision making. It is crucial that the clusters not only network within themselves, but also share information with the local, provincial and national governments to promote the development of realistic models.

Whilst this reconfiguration from a project to a systemic focus is deemed key, at the same time caution should be exercised not to demonise or abandon community-based projects. Instead systemic change, increased participation and community-based projects should be interwoven into a robust strategy to ‘leave no one behind’.

Planact’s stance is that popular and constructive struggle should be channelled towards improved institutional participatory practices and the development of community-centred models of participation not only in South Africa but throughout the Sub-Saharan Africa region. In other words, communities need to be actively involved in local governance. The aim of such advocacy is to protect the rights of citizens to participation which, in turn, should contribute to improved service delivery for all informal settlements and other marginalised communities. To this end, the informal settlement cluster approach will certainly increase communities’ voices in local governance and advocate for the effective utilisation of multiple forms of public participation in local government processes. Ultimately, these marginalised communities should be able to reclaim the democratic space within these processes and at the same time improve the efficiency of local government.

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