/ 30 May 2020

Asivikelane campaign gives a voice to those living in informal settlements

Nightfall: As the sun sets over Table Mountain the informal settlements become dark because homes have no electricity.
Eight people have been killed in three incidents in the Cape Flats township over the weekend. (David Harrison/M&G)


About a week ago a municipal official contacted one of the partners of the Asivikelane network trying to find out why his municipality had still not been given the green light in our bi-weekly findings, even after they had delivered water tanks to informal settlements. 

When this query was followed up with community leaders, it was discovered that in one settlement, tanks had been delivered but not yet filled with water.  In another settlement, there were not enough water points for the number of households in the settlement and existing taps were broken. 

After this exchange of information, the municipality addressed these problems, illustrating the power of citizens to hold the government to account with collective action.

Asivikelane provides a platform for residents in informal settlements to communicate severe water, sanitation and refuse removal shortages during the Covid-19 crisis. It is a growing network that already brings together 153 informal settlements in five metropolitan municipalities and five smaller towns. 

The number of informal settlements grow rapidly, as response time to basic service issues is reduced and other nongovernmental organisations join the campaign. Every two weeks, more than 428 participants from informal settlements are asked three simple questions: Was water available every time that you needed it over the last week? Were the toilets cleaned in the last seven days? Was waste collected in your settlement in the last seven days?

There is obvious and clear evidence that hygiene and handwashing has a direct correlation to  the spread of the pandemic. Every possible resource has to be centred to ensure that the estimated 1.2-million households in informal settlements and the invisible number of “backyarders” have access to water and decent sanitation. 

But we should not waste this crisis by only focusing on the short term. This is the precise moment to think further and address the matter of basic services once and for all. Here are five reasons why it is essential for the future: 

Firstly, access to water, decent sanitation and basic services is a constitutional right. It is enshrined in our Bill of Rights, section 27, which reads: “Everyone has the right to have access to sufficient food and water … The state must take reasonable legislative and other measures, within its available resources, to achieve the progressive realisation of these rights.” 

Secondly, this campaign is not just about services, but fundamentally about agency and voice. In our current paradigm, these are largely being determined by the patronage of local politicians and/or local government officials. Taps and toilets are frequently installed with no consultation or in areas that are either completely over serviced, or where they cater to the needs of a few. Through this campaign, citizens are voicing their concerns in the most evidential and direct manner. And as such, collectively holding all spheres of government accountable.

Thirdly, basic services are not simply a resourcing issue, but about prioritisation. The servicing of informal settlements and backyarders haven’t been given the priority they deserve. Each year, millions are underspent on grants to local government that are precisely there to service these areas. Where money is spent, substandard services are often installed because “these are for informal settlements”. 

This campaign highlights that we need to move beyond talking about simply dumping taps and toilets, but exploring new avenues for water and sanitation. Groundbreaking examples come from India, where communities run and manage facilities.

Fourth, the campaign isn’t just about demonstrating the gaps in service delivery, but sharing positive responses too. In many instances, the municipalities and metros are using this data to ensure that they respond urgently to the needs. Water tanks have been delivered in many metros, countless taps and toilets repaired and protective gear and sanitisers distributed to communities to clean communal toilets. Many of these examples highlight the dualistic role of the campaign — recognising improvements when they happen and improving service delivery. Ultimately this is not a monitoring and evaluation tool, but a platform for co-production and engagement.

Finally, the campaign is under no illusion that basic services will alleviate the root causes of poverty and inequality. But it definitely is a step towards restoring dignity to the millions living in extreme poverty. This effort needs to translate, with the support of civil society, into completely rethinking our ability to release well-located land, tenure security for the poor and an economic future that they can determine.

As the campaign gains momentum, we are putting this challenge forward to the nation — can we address the most fundamental needs for our citizens? And will this be the beginning of a new way of charting a comprehensive response to poverty and inequality that doesn’t rely on patronage?