OPINION | Covid-19: People in informal settlements continue to show great resilience

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When government does not communicate clear time-frames, expecting people to patiently wait in the dark, it forces them into a DIY urbanism mode, says the writer. (iStock, Gallo Images)
When government does not communicate clear time-frames, expecting people to patiently wait in the dark, it forces them into a DIY urbanism mode, says the writer. (iStock, Gallo Images)

Going forward, the government needs to view its resource allocation for basic service provision in informal settlements. It should use the coronavirus as a moment to awaken to future outbreaks of a similar kind, writes Qhamani Tshazi.  


The outbreak of the novel Covid-19 pandemic has once again brought into sharp focus the unequal access to basic services across race, class and income lines in South Africa.

It is no secret that residents in informal settlements do not have enough access to basic services such as water, sanitation and electricity.

According to Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation Minister Lindiwe Sisulu part of government’s response to limit the impact of the coronavirus disease in informal settlements has been to curb the infrastructure deficits found in these areas by bringing in mobile water tanks and installing standpipes to improve hygiene.  

Where we work in the Eastern Cape the current ratio of people per tap or toilet is far off from the national norms and standards in the Buffalo City Metro and in many municipalities across the country.

A recent social audit by Afesis–corplan, a developmental NGO based in East London I work for, revealed that in some of Buffalo City’s informal settlements, more than 40 families still share one toilet.

Informal settlements in their current form are potential death traps and if the coronavirus was to spread to any of them, the conditions in these areas would be conducive for facilitating a rapid spread of the virus. 

In light of the apparent lack of basic services, communities have not just sat by idly waiting for government to provide basic services to them; many have taken initiative and have connected themselves to some of the basic services.

Every household desires some level of comfort, irrespective of where it is located.

Access to television, refrigeration, lights, sanitation, drinking water, etc. are all basic needs irrespective of whether one lives in an informal settlement or not.

The essential nature of these services means that whenever government cannot provide them, a gap opens in the "market" leaving communities to take matters into their own hands.  

The collective term for activities that urban communities engage in when government services are simply not enough to meet their needs is Do It Yourself (D.I.Y) urbanism.

DIY urbanism is resident-driven, low budget, and often designed to be a temporary urban intervention to a common problem.

The DIY urbanism approach is a direct opposite to the top down bureaucratically sanctioned and funded urban change that is largely associated with urban planning.

DIY urbanism happens as a result of residents claiming their right to the city outside of the confines of limiting government policies and by-laws.

Thus where there is no electricity, citizens often find creative ways to connect to the grid; where there is no access to water, citizens creatively connect their own water stand pipes to the already existent water infrastructure.

All these creative interventions come as a response to a long waiting period that the government often subjects communities to for these services.   

There is only so much waiting that people can do until they decide to take matters into their own hands.

When government does not communicate clear time-frames with communities in need and expects people to patiently wait in the dark, it forces them into a DIY urbanism mode.

Intrinsically, people are creative and innovative; they possess in them an ability to find solutions to their own problems.

Granted, they would want to comply with government regulations as far as possible but an unresponsive government pushes communities to a DIY urbanism space where they must solve their own service delivery problems. 

There are both positive and negative effects of DIY urbanism. The positives are that communities access basic services quicker and on their own terms.

There are all sorts of economic spin-offs from DIY urbanism.

For example, a self-taught electrician interviewed as part of the social auditing process indicated that they charge R150 to connect a household illegally to the electricity grid in an informal settlement and that they make roughly about R15 000 a month.

He joked that every time when municipal officials disconnect illegal connections, he simply makes more money, often doubling his monthly income.

By disconnecting the illegal connections the municipality does not deal with the need - the need for electricity is left intact and communities will find alternative ways to reconnect back to the grid.

Obviously, the municipality loses revenue from these illegal connections and each time its officials go to informal settlements to disconnect illegal connections, their safety is compromised. 

With the snail's pace of basic service delivery in informal settlements in particular, many DIY entrepreneurs are seeing and seizing the gap in the market by using their skills to offer viable alternatives, albeit often at a much more costly rate than normal, to communities.

The price as explained above can go from anything between a few hundred rands and a person’s life.

The lives of people in areas where there are a lack of basic services, are in lack are a transaction in waiting, with our government being the biggest facilitator of these transactions.

Most of the artisanal services provided through DIY urbanism are often unsafe and carry unprecedented risks for firstly the "service providers" who at times have no formal training or protective gear and to the recipients of the service who move from a transaction-in-waiting to victim-in- waiting with each illegal connection.   

Recently, we tracked a few informal settlements that had connected themselves to the existing municipal water infrastructure.

They created for themselves water taps that provide a steady constant supply of water and work quite efficiently.

These taps were a direct response to a desperate need for safe, clean water that is necessary for a variety of household uses, and DIY urbanism proved to be a viable solution for a community that was tired of waiting.

DIY urbanism, though efficient for the recipients, is a rather tricky alternative in that while government criminalises it (as it jumps the queue for resource allocation and government would rather communities waited in line, often for years for these basic services) the Constitution guarantees a right to these basic services.

Obviously, communities would not resort to high risk means of accessing services if they had a choice to low risk means. 

The State of Disaster in the country and the outbreak of the coronavirus has forced us to appreciate the industriousness of those communities who did not just sit in waiting, but took proactive measures to access water, for example, as they now could be just a little bit safer than those who do not have access to water.

Going forward, the government needs to view its resource allocation for basic service provision in informal settlements.

It should use the coronavirus as a moment to awaken to future outbreaks of a similar kind.  

- Qhamani Tshazi is a sustainable settlements programme officer at Afesis-Corplan, an NGO contributing to community-driven development and good local governance in the Eastern Cape. He writes in his personal capacity 

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