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Mapping urban transitions through community participation in South Africa
Isis Nunez Ferrera, Ben Fagan-Watson and Pete Barbrook-Johnson

In May 2017, we completed our third and final fieldwork trip to Durban as part of the ISULabaNtu project. This phase of the project has used participatory action-research tools to coproduce knowledge with informal settlement communities on housing issues, upgrading processes, decision-making and urban development in Durban. This phase also focused on the design and testing of a coproduction approach that can be later ‘scaled-up’ in the development of the city-wide toolkit later in the project. We also interviewed and undertook focus groups with wider stakeholders in the city, to map synergies between communities’ activities and more formal state and non-governmental organisations’ (NGOs) plans and approaches.

During all three trips we were fortunate to have the invaluable support of Sibongile Buthelezi and Madudu Khumalo, research staff at UKZN, and multiple masters’ students from UKZN, including Ronald Ncube, Njabulo Zungu, and Nonsikelelo Sinenhlanhla Khanyi.

Each of the informal settlements we worked with have undertaken different community-led approaches to the improvement and development of their neighbourhoods, including both relocation and in-situ upgrading, community-based construction management teams, self-building, participatory enumeration and profiling, and large-scale savings for housing upgrading. We aimed to explore each of these processes in depth and understand the positive drivers, the barriers and the room for improvement, based on the communities’ experience, the impact of each of the projects in their lives and their potential to inform urban development in Durban. Therefore the three trips have all been varied, and taken different focuses and approaches.  Despite changes in plans along the way (of course fieldwork requires constant flexibility!) they have been successful; proving to be a steep but rewarding learning curve for the team, and allowing us all to build relationships with the three communities taking part in the project.

As part of the coproduction approach, each trip included the training of ‘Community Researchers’ (CRs), who are local residents that take an active part in the field research, resident mobilisation, and discussions on the data collected. In each of the trips, Ben, Isis and Pete trained the CRs in research, facilitation, communication, and negotiation skills. The action-learning training included class-based discussions, observation, and learning by doing. CRs then undertook household interviews, focus groups, mapping exercises as well as the design and facilitation of large and interactive community events in their own neighbourhoods.

In the first trip, in November 2016, Ben and Isis focussed mainly on Namibia Stop 8 to the north of central Durban in Inanda. This is a settlement with a range of formal and informal housing, with formal housing provided by the state through the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), and by community-led organisations, such as FEDUP (the Federation of the Urban and Rural Poor) in collaboration with uTshani Fund. The current project is currently in Phase 1 (implemented between 2010-2013) and includes residents from two previously separate communities, Namibia and Stop 8 settlements, which were relocated from the immediate vicinity. Phase 2 is planned for the next few years.

In our second trip in February 2017, Isis and Pete focused on the second case study settlement - Havelock - in Durban North (much closer to central Durban). Havelock is a wholly informal settlement, with approx. 400 residents living in approx. 200 shacks made of wood, plastic sheets, and corrugated zinc. The community are relatively well organised currently, though upgrading progress has been slow for a variety of reasons.  Successes so far have related to the provision and improvement of ablution blocks, a successful participatory enumeration, a profiling and reblocking exercise in 2012, the establishment of collaborations with different organisations and municipality departments, and the on-going advocacy and negotiations for the inclusion of Havelock in current upgrading plans of the city. Here, the team again worked with community researchers to conduct household interviews, focus groups, a large community event, a participatory planning exercise, and mapping exercises and a reflection session on data and findings.

During this second trip, Pete and Isis also conducted interviews and focus groups with wider stakeholders relevant to the upgrading of informal settlements, including representatives from the municipality and NGOs working on land issues, strategic planning, housing and architecture in Durban.

Finally, in the third trip in May 2017, Isis and Pete focused on the third of our case studies – Piesang River (sometimes referred to as Soweto) again in Inanda to the north of Durban. This is a settlement with formal housing provided by the state and by community-led organisations (again including FEDUP). This settlement is often highlighted as setting a strong precedent for self –organisation strategies and community-led upgrading because of the success of activities in the 1990s and 2000s related to the provision of housing and services. However, there has been relatively less activity in recent years, despite the community being well organised, and the presence of many unsolved issues related to land, housing and services. Here, Pete and Isis worked with the community researchers to run focus groups and mapping exercises discussing their history of self-organisation, drivers behind their success stories and the barriers they still face in the improvement of their neighbourhood. During this trip, we again spent time to interview wider stakeholders working on informal settlement upgrading in Durban.

In all three visits, the community researchers’ efforts and engagement were central to our successes. We were lucky to work with a range of people, young and old, men and women. At the end of each trip, with each group of community researchers, we ran reflection sessions where we opened up a discussion about the value of research to communities. These discussions often proved to be amongst both the most challenging and rewarding conversations during our trips. Community researchers often spoke of seeing the value of information and research for their community, but equally, of the need for change to come about quickly, the need to avoid creating unrealistic expectations of change, and the pessimism and research (or ‘outsider asking questions’) fatigue of many residents.

Additionally, we ran a session with residents from Havelock settlement, to bring back and validate preliminary findings after the first round of analysis. Findings were presented through visual means in posters containing perspectives from men and women and key findings from the housing, neighbourhood and city discussions held with the community. Havelock residents discussed the findings and gave us suggestions in terms of language and representation to better communicate the findings to the rest of the community. Isis and Pete will incorporate the suggestions and the final visual posters will be exhibited permanently in Havelock and distributed through pamphlets to each resident.

During the final trip in May 2017, ISULabaNtu held a workshop with municipality officials and project managers, including from housing, architecture and water and sanitation departments; NGO officials and representatives from the 100 Resilient Cities strategy for Durban. This allowed us to present some of our Phase 2 preliminary findings, and generate discussion further on synergies between community-led approaches and the more formal processes from the State and NGOs. A separate blog will be available soon on this workshop.

Now we have completed our fieldwork for this phase of the project, we enter an analysis and writing phase, focussed on producing: (i) final visual outputs for communities, presenting our findings and reflections, (ii) internal reports so that our findings can inform the rest of the project’s activities and toolkit, and (iii) more formal academic outputs.

This article was first published on the ISULabaNtu blog here.

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