What’s in a name?

Planact, a nongovernmental organisation, is addressing the problem by supporting residents to have the streets where they live named. (David Harrison/M&G)

Planact, a nongovernmental organisation, is addressing the problem by supporting residents to have the streets where they live named. (David Harrison/M&G)


Many people avert their eyes when they pass the sprawling shack settlements encroaching on cities. There are about 2 500 in Gauteng alone and, although municipalities are constitutionally obliged to provide basic services to these areas, they do so grudgingly and usually in response to mass demonstrations.

To address this, Planact, a Johannesburg-based nongovernmental organisation, is helping people from disadvantaged areas to work in government structures so that they can enjoy the same rights as people living in the formal housing sector. High on the list is tenure, something people who live in shacks don’t have.

“People living in informal settlements need to be allowed to own their shacks,” says Mike Makwela, a senior programme co-ordinator of Planact.
“You can’t feel secure or take pride in a home that could be demolished at any moment.

“Informal settlements are not going to go away. They are mushrooming everywhere because poverty is increasing and people are migrating in search of economic opportunities.”

The push for tenure underpins Planact’s latest project — to support residents to have streets where they live named, which will be a step towards formalising the illegal establishments.

Nine informal settlements in Gauteng have been selected for the venture, including Thembelihle in the City of Johannesburg, Skoonplaas/Cloverfield in Etwatwa and Kameeldrift in the City of Tshwane. Residents have thrown their weight behind the project and meetings have been held to propose street names.

“Being able to name my own street gives me a sense of identity,” says Bhayiza Miya, who has lived in the Thembelihle informal settlement for 30 years.

“We may be living in squatter camps but, as South Africans, we want to be recognised as people, too. If government is able to give us electricity but cannot give us street names, we will do it ourselves.”

In keeping with its vision of participatory democracy, Planact prefers to facilitate processes that allow people to take ownership of initiatives.

Guided by Planact, people can learn how to do their own social auditing, understand government budgets and attend integrated development planning meetings so they can advocate for rights.

“Communities know what they want,” says Makwela. “Give them the tools and they will do it themselves. They are organised. They have community leaders and use participatory processes such as mass meetings to introduce projects and vote on whether they should go ahead.”

The government is facing a reality check. An estimated one in five South Africans live in informal settlements and there is a critical shortage of state housing.

The right to adequate housing is reflected in the National Housing Code and the 2004 Breaking New Ground government policy promotes the integration of informal settlements into mainstream society. The plan is to upgrade them incrementally. A national upgrading support programme was designed in 2010 to support the department of human settlements with this.

Despite resolutions taken, informal settlements exist as a grey area in government planning. They are considered illegal because the land was illegally occupied and they do not feature on municipal maps. Too often the response of authorities is to demolish the shacks.

Will street names improve the lives and status of shack dwellers?

“Definitely,” says Mondli Masuku, a young resident in Thembelihle. “Because we don’t have street names, we can’t receive letters. People doing online and distance learning have to go all the way to Lenasia post office to get their study material. Often we have more than seven different addresses for one shack because of the renumbering.

“Ambulances and the police cannot reach us if there is an emergency. When you report to 10111, they will tell you to go and wait at a spot outside Thembelihle in the middle of the night. You put your life at risk. We have pregnant women we are expected to push in a wheelbarrow so we can meet the ambulance somewhere outside.

“Yet when the police are chasing after us during protests, they have no difficulty navigating the whole settlement to arrest the leaders. But when it comes to assisting with service delivery, they will tell you, ‘Sorry, we can’t find our way in Thembelihle.’ ”

Land activist Abie Nyalunga believes informal settlements are only recognised for the sake of political expediency.

“You stay in a shack, you are told to ‘vote for us and we will give you houses’. You vote for them and they forget you for the next five years,” he says.

In 1990, Nyalunga led a successful invasion of a piece of land owned by the Benoni town council and won the right to it. The area is now called Tamboville.

The street-naming drive, #NathiMasaziwe, will be launched at an inter-metro event on April 12 in Johannesburg. Among those attending will be residents’ associations, municipal policymakers, Google Street View officials and Planact.

Street naming and the recognition of informal settlements are on the agenda, plus getting the South African Police Service and local emergency service providers to endorse the initiative.

Chelesile Ndlovu Nachamba

Chelesile Ndlovu Nachamba

Chelesile Ndlovu is the resource & communication coordinator at Planact.  She holds a BSc Honours degree in Journalism and Media studies and has attended short courses in social media as well as stakeholder engagement. Her key function includes content management, branding, publications, stakeholder relations, online and social media management. Read more from Chelesile Ndlovu Nachamba

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