Brief history of the Alliance

The South African alliance of community organizations and support NGOs affiliated to Shack / Slum Dwellers International (SDI) has pioneered people-centered development initiatives by and of the poor since 1991. 

The 1980’s was a decade of open social conflict between the white minority government and the oppressed black majority.  The beleaguered apartheid state resorted increasingly to brute force and terror to maintain its hegemony.  At the same time a deeply rooted resistance – spearheaded by the angry youth in apartheid’s slums – forced it to accelerate a process of reform. Squatter settlements — always a feature of apartheid’s slums — began to mushroom and by 1991 an estimated 40% of South Africa’s urban population was living in shacks or in overcrowded housing stock.

In 1991 People’s Dialogue on Land and Shelter forged a relationship with a rapidly growing network of people from informal settlements across South Africa. Over time members of this network formed housing savings schemes and in 1994 these savings schemes officially launched themselves as The South African Homeless People’s Federation. During this period, members of the network visited India to learn from the Indian National Slum Dwellers Federation (NSDF) and their alliance partners (SPARC and Mahila Milan). The initial visits to and from India in 1991 and 1992 served as a kind of shock therapy for the squatter leaders in the People’s Dialogue network. The conditions of poverty and homelessness that greeted them on the pavements of Bombay shattered the consoling illusion that an ANC government would provide land and houses for all.

We saw how after 40 years of political independence millions of people were living in shacks built on the pavements of the city streets. If any of us had harbored illusions about the future of South Africa’s homeless poor they vanished forever in the crowded streets of Bombay.

The South African Homeless People’s Federation was founded in 1994 bringing together a nation-wide poor people’s movement of nearly 55 000 households from more than 1200 savings collectives in over 750 homeless communities.  Its membership was 85% female and average household income was under R700 per month.  The primary goal was to develop its members’ capacity to conceive, control and implement their own poverty alleviation strategies via the development of their own communities.

The Federation and our NGO People’s Dialogue operate in an informal system because we work with the urban poor who belong to the 60 -75% of the landless and homeless population for whom the formal systems do not work.

As the South African network of slum dwellers expanded over time they formed two closely affiliated organisations; the Federation of the Urban Poor (FEDUP) and the Informal Settlement Network (ISN). FEDUP’s primary vision has been to ensure that the urban poor – and particularly poor women – gain full citizenship rights and become key actors in determining the development priorities and policies of cities. The Federation has worked to move both urban policy and poor communities away from crisis-led reactive interventions to gendered long-term partnerships in which the urban poor themselves play a key role as visionaries and partners in generating “win-win” solutions that create revised models of development.

In 1991 we learnt that the poor are the major producers of houses. Within a year we had learnt that among the poor the women play the role of planners and designers. Much more than the men, they are driven to want to live in better conditions, to construct homes with better materials, to create basic amenities such as toilets and water, to get safe places for their children to play.

The ISN has three primary objectives. The first is to create solidarity and unity of the urban poor so that they are well organised, and equipped with the skills, knowledge and scale needed to create meaningful change. Secondly, ISN is building a national urban network of the poor for learning and lobbying so that local, community-level initiatives drive any citywide or national agenda, city governments are obliged to consult communities in development plans, and communities develop the capacity to hold local authorities, especially at ward council level, to account. The final goal is to change the way our cities are planned and developed and how public funds are used so that they are inclusive, and that ordinary people are involved.

We learnt that what this country needed was not participation by the people in a government process, but government’s participation in a people’s process.

The Community Organisation Resource Center (CORC) was constituted in 2002 to build on the work of People’s Dialogue on Land and Shelter who supported the then-South African Homeless People’s Federation. These two support NGOs co-existed in parallel: People’s Dialogue was structured to be the dedicated professional support arm of the Homeless People’s Federation, while CORC was set up with the intention of consolidating a community-based, pro-poor platform in order to facilitate engagement of a network of community-based organisations on a settlement-wide basis. For the first three years, CORC facilitated learning exchanges between communities associated with the Coalition of the Urban Poor (CUP) and the Alliance of Rural Communities (ARC), forerunners to what is the Informal Settlement Network (ISN) today. People’s Dialogue has ceased to exist, and CORC continues to support community-based planning towards building pro-poor and inclusive cities.

This does not mean that professionals do not have an important contribution to make. We have learnt that professional support is a critical component of a successful People’s Housing Movement, but it is a matter of making sure that professional are participating in a people’s process and not the other way around.

Together these organisations comprise the South African Alliance who continues to strive towards creating inclusive and pro-poor cities.

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