By Ava Rose Hoffman (on behalf of CORC)
From 8-12 March 2016, the South African SDI Alliance participated in a learning exchange in the United Kingdom with students at the University of Manchester and community organisations in the Greater Manchester area.
Members of the of the South African SDI Alliance, community leaders Nkokheli Ncambele (ISN), Alina Mofokeng (FEDUP) and support professional Charlton Ziervogel (CORC) engaged with postgraduate students at the University of Manchester’s School of Environment, Education and Development participating in a course on Citizen-Led Development. In the course, students study inclusive, pro-poor, participatory community development approaches. The course highlighted methodologies practiced by SDI and collaborating organisations including developing savings schemes, federation building, community mobilisation, enumerations, engaging with the state, and building partnerships with NGOs, academic institutions and governments.
Arriving in Manchester as Community Lecturers
During the week of lectures at the University of Manchester, Nkokheli and Alina taught students about the ways in which the urban poor in South Africa are uniting, mobilising, organising themselves around savings contributions and building partnerships with local governments and institutions.
Reflecting on the experience of teaching students in the course, Nkokheli described the importance of public participation when professionals engage with communities:
“The professional likes to ‘do’ for poor people. That’s the first challenge. It’s a challenge on both sides because communities don’t want someone to decide on their behalf, and the government doesn’t want to listen to poor people because they say that they’re uneducated. That’s why we always try to change that mindset… It’s important to come to the people and listen to what they want. You use your professionalism to help them to achieve what they want.”
Mobilising Manchester Street Dwellers & Community Movements
In addition to lecturing the students, Nkokheli, Alina and Charlton visited community groups each day, ranging from homeless support organizations to squatters occupying empty buildings to women’s income generation groups. Additionally, they participated in a half-day workshop with local community groups on 8 March 2016.
During the visits, Nkokheli and Alina described how they personally came to be involved in their respective movements, ISN and FEDUP, and then proceeded to discuss how to self-organise and start savings contribution programmes. Upon learning about how savings schemes operate in South Africa, some community organisations were receptive to the idea of starting similar savings groups of their own.
While many of the challenges that organisations and movements face in the UK are different from those encountered in the South African context, Charlton described that “what these groups needed was people to inspire them to get organised.” Referring to a past exchange with SDI back in the 1990s, Frances, a leader from one participating group, the Teeside Homeless Action Group (THAG), articulated:
“Our contact with groups from South Africa, Zimbabwe, India, etc. helped THAG to develop ways of working that matched our ethos of self-help and user involvement. One person I spoke to on a number of occasions was Sheela Patel (SPARC, India) who liked the way THAG was working but she warned that unless we were careful we would attract large scale funding, end up with offices full of technology and lots of staff but would lose touch with our reason for existence – helping homeless people. Her warning went unheeded and it was not until 2010 that I saw what THAG had become – offices, technology, lots of staff but I had no contact with the homeless. Since that time THAG has offloaded staff got rid of electronic gadgetry and went back to the things we did best – work with the homeless and help them to help themselves.”
This example, Charlton described, captures the richness of the network’s knowledge.
Furthermore, Nkokheli highlighted the importance of building solidarity, not only by creating networks among the poor but also by forming partnerships with local governments and institutions (including universities). Nkokheli described,
“By forming partnerships with other institutions, it makes government listen to the people.”
In particular, Nkokheli saw a great deal of potential for low-income communities to build partnerships with the government in Manchester given that the government issues small grants to the unemployed, which could serve as the foundation for a savings contribution programme. Nonetheless, Charlton observed that funding is limited and many people are falling into poverty in Manchester, thus to to “get ahead” it’s critical for people to organise themselves.
Reflections on Teaching and Mobilising
Charlton described that it was very significant to expose students to a different type of urban planning process given that “the opportunity to influence future urban planning has always been something that we try to achieve through CORC.”
Nkokheli emphasized the key message that ISN and FEDUP sought to bring to community groups in Manchester:
“The people need to network, to discuss the issues, to make sure that they’re initiating projects and also forming partnerships with the government. This was the message that we wanted to send to the people in Manchester.”
The two primary points of action that Nkokheli sought to reinforce were
- community organising in order to project the voices of the urban poor, and
- developing savings schemes.
“What we tried to convey in Manchester is that poor people mustn’t tell themselves that they are poor and they can’t do anything. So, they need to start collecting information and organising people, making sure that they are saving so that when they go to the government, they go with something. We are trying to change the system of ‘taking’ to a system of ‘supporting.’”