CAPE TOWN, South Africa — In Cape Town, the slums of Flamingo Crescent and Santini are just 20 kilometers 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.
Urbanization 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 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.
“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 to upgrade Flamingo Crescent.
An innovative partnership between Flamingo Crescent residents, Cape Town city, and non-government organizations has brought taps, toilets and electricity to every shack.
This 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 colored, the streets now have names, wheelie bins are neatly lined up outside the front gates to the settlement, 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 open spaces.”
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 more than 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 slums and explained that people living in these conditions were insecure about tomorrow.
“The gap between the rich and the poor is huge, coupled with the global phenomenon of urbanization, the challenges are clear,” she explained in her office in Cape Town.
“Urbanization 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 unacceptable.
“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, take it!”
Below watch the short film Upgrading Lives that chronicles Matthews efforts on behalf of those living in the slums of Cape Town.
This story was produced by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian issues, conflicts, global land and property rights, modern slavery and human trafficking, women’s rights, and climate change. Click here for more stories from the series.