Lessons from Doornkop: Ways of coping with poverty


Community and government efforts to improve lives in Doornkop, or “Snake Park”, Soweto, is the theme of a new book launched by the residents and the Centre for Social Development in Africa at the University of Johannesburg (UJ).

Development, Social Policy and Community Action: Lessons from Below (Human Sciences Research Council Press) tells the story of how people in areas likeDoornkop use social grants and services to support themselves and others. It questions myths about how people make a living and view their lives.

More than 250 residents celebrated the launch of the book last month at the Doornkop community hall.

The book provides a rich description of people’s hopes and struggle to make ends meet while coping with high rates of poverty, depression, young motherhood, youth unemployment and service delivery concerns.

The findings come from a series of research studies conducted over the past 10 years with residents and Humana People to People, a network of nonprofit aid organisations working worldwide. The research was done by students and academics from UJ and Utrecht University.

Speaking at the launch, Tinashe Mushayanyama, acting head of social development at the City of Johannesburg, gave practical information about how and where residents could get the extended social package of free water and electricity for those in need.

“We plan to use the research findings to guide the city’s social development programmes and to work with local organisations to find solutions,” Mushayanyama said.

Siphumelele Clinic health workers Tsepiso Sekhoboko, and Mojalefa Matshela also provided information about the services the clinic offers.

There are important messages in the book. First is the pressure of living in poverty. This is what some residents told Sophie Plagerson and Tessa Hochfeld: “There is a lot of poverty here; many people are struggling; they are not working. Second, residents, especially women, suffer from high rates of depression and anxiety — 43% of caregivers of children have a high incidence of depression and anxiety. Third, residents of Doornkop care about each other, [and] they try to help each other where they can.”

A final message is one for government and others who are trying to help them — listen to the residents. Learn from them how they are trying to improve their own lives. Involve them in the search for solutions to overcome poverty. The research points to more nuanced strategies to address poverty and exclusion by learning from below.

The editors of the book argue that “solutions to poverty and inequality are often designed, implemented and evaluated in a top-down manner, thereby disregarding the views and agency of poor citizens themselves”.

Addressing this gap, the writers explore how government assistance, through social grants and services, as well as other support mechanisms, provide solutions to poor citizens and the ways in whichthey perceive and make use of such interventions.

Leila Patel and Marianne S Ulriksen are the book’s editors. Patel is professor of social development studies at the Centre for Social Development in Africa, UJ

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