​Auntie Maria takes control in Flamingo

Maria Matthews, rallied the residents of Flamingo Crescent to work together to improve their dire living conditions. (Nicky Milne/Thomson Reuters Foundation)

Maria Matthews, rallied the residents of Flamingo Crescent to work together to improve their dire living conditions. (Nicky Milne/Thomson Reuters Foundation)

In Cape Town, the townships of Flamingo Crescent and Santini are just 20km apart but the gap in the standard of living is an example of how residents can improve their own lives.

A third of Cape Town’s 3.7-million residents live in townships or informal settlements with limited access to basic services, such as water, electricity and toilets.

Urbanisation is on the rise, increasing the demand for housing and expanding informal settlements.

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 transformed her settlement into the envy of many.

Maria Matthews, known 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 live in informal settlements globally with limited access to basic services but campaigners hope this small community 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,” Matthews said.

She now lives in a cosy home in Flamingo Crescent, which she shares with her partner Patrick.

“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 works with 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 nongovernment organisations has brought taps, toilets and electricity to every home.

This involved a process called reblocking: shacks were demolished, the settlement layout redesigned and infrastructure brought in to allow for basic services of water, sanitation and electricity. Shacks were then rebuilt.

The homes of Flamingo Crescent are now vibrantly coloured, the streets have names, wheelie bins are neatly lined up outside the front gates to the settlement, and mail is delivered.

The project took three years from inception to completion. 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 said.

Across the city is Santini, a settlement housing about 200 people, is a maze of tightly packed, dilapidated shacks. It’s strewn with rubbish, there’s 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 disputes among residents have stopped progress in upgrading Santini.

“There are only seven toilets for 150 people,” said Grace Lebakeng, a young mother.

“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 for light, resulting in frequent fires. On New Year’s Day in 2013 the worst township fire in recent history left more than 4 000 people homeless and at least five people dead in Khayelitsha.

ISN’s national leader, Nkokheli Ncambele, said it was a huge problem as the conditions people were living in 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 said.

The upgrading of Flamingo Crescent seemed insurmountable at first. The city committed resources to providing infrastructure and services but residents were asked to commit to paying 20% of the cost of the individual structures.

That was a big call for Flamingo Crescent, where 90% 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 to have started this year, but local politics spurred fear in the settlement. The process has come to a standstill, to the dismay of many residents.

“We want the reblocking 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.” — Thompson Reuters Foundation 

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