SHACK, Slum Dwellers International SDI

Linked with Rethinking resettlement in Mumbai, and with Mumbai pavement dwellers finally get their homes.

SHACK, Post Office Box, 14038 Mowbray, 7705 Cape Town, South Africa.

T: +27 21 689 9408, F: +27 21 689 3912, e-mail.


Report-links for all Countries, from Angola to Zimbabwe;
A small step towards confederation in India;


It is almost 16 years now since the SDI process began to take root. It started with community-to-community exchange programmes between pavement dwellers in Mumbai, India and shack dwellers from the informal settlements of South Africa.

Since then it has grown into an international network of urban poor Federations in 24 countries on 3 different continents. Many of the strategies and tactics for securing land tenure and housing that were developed in the early days remain in place today, although they have been refined and adapted by an ever deepening process of action and reflection.

The centrepiece of all these strategies is a commitment to engage formal institutions, especially the local State, in dialogue and negotiation. The objective has always been to broker deals in ways that secure tenure and provide decent housing for vulnerable and marginalised households and to do so in such a way that precedents are set, institutionalised, and scaled up.

This strategy has earned SDI many detractors. There have been intermittent accusations of co-optation and collaboration. When these criticisms come they are often constructed in a way that suggests that SDI takes the easy option. We are accused of legitimizing evil governments and simultaneously betraying the courageous struggles of those who man the barricades in a bitter fight for land and housing rights.

We understand that these reactions are often provoked by events with no direct relation to our work. For example the Mumbai Municipal Corporation will embark on wide-scale evictions. This will prompt rights-based activists to question why we continue to try to broker deals with the government institution carrying out these evictions. The same applies in Zimbabwe, where the Mugabe regime embarks on massive demolitions, or in Durban where the Metro finds itself facing protests from the militant slumdwellers group, Abahlali Basemjondolo. We are deemed guilty – if not by association – then for our association with these Governments – in spite of the fact that our efforts at negotiation are yielding the very results that are sought for in struggles against evictions: secure tenure, basic services and affordable housing for the most marginaized and vulnerable citizens in our cities.

We understand, therfore, that those who challenge us when we seek negotiated alternatives in the midst of demolitions, are usually ignorant of the way we work.

They do not acknowledge that whilst the strategies and terrain are different, the struggle is just the same. Certainly the goals are the same: secure tenure, basic services, affordable housing. But the conditions of struggle are pretty similar as well. There should be no disagreement here. All of us, whether we adopt SDI methods or not, are struggling with the State. From the moment of its birth as an underclass, the homeless and landless poor has been condemned to the fringes of our cities; whilst the market dictates this exclusion, the State regulates and enforces it.

Perhaps SDI has not done enough to demonstrate to the general public what its strategy of negotiation and engagement entails. It may lack the spilling of blood, the crunching of bone and the trashing of treasured possessions , but it is the same passion play of struggles with power and over resources. It is the same unequal struggle, with the odds stacked against the poor and in favour of a system that advances the interests of the rich and the powerful.

Nowhere, perhaps, is this clearer than in South Africa. There, the eradication of poverty is firstly a propaganda instrument for the State, secondly a mechanism for the enrichment of the politically connected, and lastly a genuine opportunity for the poor.

SDI continues to believe that whilst this moment in history in South Africa is characterised by the propulsion of some sections of the underclasses into the economic elite, it also provides significant space for organised constituencies of the urban poor to secure resources, and to open more space for a deeper redistribution of wealth.

What the general public needs to know is that this ‘SDI process’ is a seriously difficult struggle in South Africa. Perhaps a growing popular awareness of the complexities and difficulties involved in making deals for the poor in South Africa will assist those with political power and will in their efforts to bring about meaningful institutional change. Perhaps it will liberate an obdurate bureaucratic machinery – a bureaucracy that regards its power to regulate as an index of its own liberation – so that they can support real change and work with genuinely organised constituencies of the urban poor to achieve it.

What follows is a summary of the ongoing struggle of the Federation of the Urban Poor (FEDUP) and its support partner uTshani Fund to get subsidies released to urban poor families who have taken the initiative to build their own houses, instead of waiting for developers to provide for them. These families and the extraordinary organisation they formed are in effect being punished for their capacity to organise, unite, and meet their housing needs. They have been stymied in their efforts to be proactive and innovative, to build houses for themselves and for their government, instead of waiting for a dubious alliance of private developers, bureaucrats and sometimes local councillors to provide inferior housing at higher cost.

Does the following story prove that our strategy of engagement is misguided? No more than a judicial eviction order on the basis of relatively enlightened laws proves that fighting demolitions is a futile exercise. SDI and FEDUP, its SA affiliate, will continue to engage all three tiers of government, in order to ensure that the rights of the poor are recognised and honoured. We will continue to capacitate and strengthen slumdwellers in the skills required to secure universal rights to land and adequate housing: to organise, negotiate, manage resources, identify suitable land, install services, construct houses and use these collective capacities – multiplied a thousand times over – to create real change in South Africa and beyond.

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