Restarting and Regaining Momentum: The Persistence of the Ruo Emoh Community

By Mariel Zimmermann and Jaclyn Williams (on behalf of CORC)

Looking back at the two decade history of the Ruo Emoh housing project, we outline the primary political and social challenges the community faced and how they overcame these obstacles together. The main takeaways from the success of the Ruo Emoh housing project allow us to better understand how communities unite and why they continue to persist in the face of constant challenges. (Read the full project profile here.)

Project Overview

The success of the Ruo Emoh housing project was celebrated
 on December 22nd, 2017, when 49 families moved into new homes, built on a well-located piece of infill land on the corner of Weltevreden Parkway
 & Caesars Drive in Colorado Park, Mitchells Plain. The houses are located adjacent to public transport and nearby schools, a community hall, shops and a hospital. The process to bring the project to completion was, however, complex and contested, marked by the community’s persistent battle with government’s administrative and political hurdles, and contestation from the neighboring ratepayer groups.

Obstacles, Restarting, and Regaining Momentum

The struggle of Rou Emoh began in 1997, when backyarders and tenants strained by poor living conditions in Manenberg and Mitchells Plan created the Ruo Emoh Housing Savings Scheme. The savings scheme, established under the South African Homeless People’s Federation (now know as the Federation fo the Urban and Rural Poor), identified strategies to access land and later housing through the People’s Housing Process (PHP), a program initiated by the then Department of Housing.  

The Ruo Emoh group was convinced that they could build more appropriate houses than the contractor and government-led RDP approach. In June 1999, they demonstrated what a people’s housing approach could entail and within  3 days, they built an illegal, formal “show house” on vacant land in Mitchells Plain (read the whole story here). Neighboring residents (who were skeptical of the Ruo Emoh group) approached the Federation about the show house and saw that it offered a real alternative to contractor supplied housing. The next day, however, a bulldozer demolished the show house within 3 hours.

“We built the house as a practical statement. Of course we knew that it was illegal. We knew that we would have to suffer the consequences…. We did not try to interrupt negotiations – at every time we were ready to talk. All we wanted…was to ask them to come and look at the house… to see that the people’s process is better.” – Janap Oosthuizen (cited in People’s Dialogue on Land and Shelter, Negotiating for land: the construction and demolition of Ruo Emoh’s show house in Cape Town in August 1999.)

Archie Olkers presenting the model of the show house that was built in 1999.

Archie Olkers presenting the model of the show house that was built in 1999.

In 1999, the Ruo Emoh group, supported by the South African Homeless People’s Federation and uTshani Fund purchased a piece of undeveloped land in Colorado Park. At approximately 10,000m2 in size, the purchase of the plot enabled the community to begin designing, planning, coordinating and managing their own housing development. Applications for rezoning and subdivision were submitted to the city council and to the provincial government of the Western Cape. This initiated a slow engagement with statutes and regulations necessary to obtain subdivision clearance so that the land could be used for residential purposes.

At this stage, however, the Colorado Ratepayers Association (CRA) and other neighbours raised numerous objections. These were based on the assumption that the Ruo Emoh development would lower property values and strain basic service infrastructure for water, electricity and sewage. They also linked backyard dwellers with criminal activity. Ironically, many who objected had erected informal structures in their own back yards to accommodate children and relatives. Finally, after five years of back and forth, the subdivision was approved on 26 June 2006. 

From 2006 to 2010 the project was put on hold due to ongoing objections by neighbors and ratepayers. After 12 years of multiple setbacks, groundwork infrastructure was installed on the Ruo Emoh site on 8 June 2011.Shortly after the contractor initiated the groundwork infrastructure installation, ratepayers supported by
 the local councilor attempted to
 disrupt construction.Under political pressure the city reneged on the in-principle agreement and in July 2011 uTshani Fund (as the developer) received a “cease works order” from the city. The project was stopped at significant cost (and penalties) to the developer with half the infrastructure left incomplete in the ground.

As a result of these objections, the developer and Ruo Emoh community reluctantly ceded to a lower density 
for the project. Whereas the land was originally slated for 100 two-story houses, the project was reduced to 49 single-story houses. This compromise meant that fewer housing beneficiaries 
in the Ruo Emoh group would receive 
a house as part of the project, and those who did would need to pay more. It also meant that at a time when there was a cry for medium to high-density housing across South Africa (which would incorporate cross-subsidization and innovate building methods when using state subsidies), an opportunity was lost to create a people-centered project and process.

Impact

Despite the financial and emotional setback, the Ruo Emoh community, assisted by FEDUP, uTshani Fund, and Peoples’ Environmental Planning, worked to find funding, re-unite, and overcome the institutional and administrative hurdles needed to continue the Ruo Emoh project. After 18 months, the city council’s Spatial Planning, Environment and Land Use Management Committee (SPELUM) approved the extension of subdivision in November 2012. A series of drawn-out internal negotiations between the Ruo Emoh residents and support NGOs followed which resulted in a financial agreement to submit a new application to the Provincial government for an increased subsidy quantum. This amount was approved at the end of 2015. This left just one year to meet the conditions of subdivision that lapsed in early 2017. The most vital of these conditions were:

  1. An approved beneficiary list submitted and accepted by Province
  2. The installation of all infrastructure (civil and electrical)
  3. The construction of a boundary wall (around the development) at the cost of the developer
  4. The submission of a homeowner’s constitution with the local land use management department

What is noteworthy is that the cost of many of the above requirements was born by the community (e.g. constructing the boundary wall and ensuring site security).

Installation of the groundwork and building process of the Ruo Emoh housing project

Installation of the groundwork and building process of the Ruo Emoh housing project

Due to delays in releasing the subsidy and a number of onerous administrative tasks, housing construction only began in August 2017. Given the nature of the project, short time-frames and restriction on state finance, a “sweat equity”
or PHP self-build option was never going to be feasible. Community input in the design and layout was extensive. Mellon Housing was appointed as contractor and all houses were completed by December 22nd, 2017. On the same day, families received their title deeds and moved into their new homes. The Ruo Emoh residents paid the R6 500 per title deed, through a loan provided from People’s led fund, which will be paid back full within one year.

Ruo Emoh residents and PEP celebrating the happy end of the project with a community braai

Ruo Emoh residents and PEP celebrating the happy end of the project with a community braai

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