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A township standing on its own two feet

Where does good governance begin? Iain Harris takes a tour of a small township in South Africa whose residents say good governance starts with them.

"You undermine the people here when you say this place can't become anything more than a township," says Lorena Daniels, a resident of Kalkfontein, a township lying on the outskirts of the city of Cape Town. Unlike other townships, Kalkfontein was created after apartheid – and it was built by residents, not by the government.

"Kalfontein is full of talent," says Daniels, an entrepreneur who moved into the area in 1993 with three children and a handbag. She was given a plot of land by the area committee and slowly she built a house from scrap that other people threw away.

"I went to junkyards and picked up loose bricks I found on the road. There are people here who make furniture, people who bake, people who design and make clothes; builders, plumbers, mechanics, panel-beaters and agriculturalists. We have everything we need to turn Kalkfontein into a smart, thriving suburb," says Daniels, who now runs a guesthouse in the township.

Sitting on locally-made furniture as she speaks, Daniels epitomises the mantra that 'the people shall govern,' one of the central tenets of the June 1955 Freedom Charter of South Africa. It was the legacy of Nelson Mandela, the first democratically elected president, who called on South Africans to "define for ourselves what we want to make of our shared destiny."

At the last municipal elections in Cape Town in 2006, there was no clear majority for any of the three main parties, resulting in a powersharing arrangement between the African National Congress (ANC), the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the Independent Democrats (ID). This makes it the only city in South Africa that is not controlled by the ANC.

Over the last decade, the close rivalry between the ANC and the DA has contributed to political uncertainty and a sense that Cape Town has been marginalised from many of the transformations taking place in the country in general. In the last few years the city has seen a dramatic rise in protests by communities over lack of delivery on housing and basic services.

Jonathan Faull of the Institute for a Democratic South Africa (IDASA) says "during the apartheid era, local government – the interface between the people and the government – was a means of enforcing apartheid policy. Today there is still a residue of cynicism and distrust towards local government which we need to overcome. Here in the Western Cape, local government is not yet fully functional."

For most of the members of the Kalkfontein community, organising themselves to be self-sufficient in the face of a poorly functioning local government was not a conscious decision, but simply the result of their need to earn a living and improve their quality of life.

"There were times when we would have only enough money to eat or to have electricity, not both," says Daniels. "So we would use it to buy meat, and then barbeque the meat outside in front with music on to create a vibe, and sell that meat to hungry people. Then we would also eat and we would make enough to get electricity and get another meal. So, there's always a way."

Daniels and a local poet and singer, Jethro Louw are putting Kalkfontein on the tourism map – after the nearby Zewenwacht Wine Estate, Kalkfontein is the biggest tourism attraction in the area. With almost half the town's population unemployed, it was clear that something was needed to bring in work and revenue.

Two years ago, Louw set up a company, the Coffee Beans Route, taking tourists to different homes and locations for an evening of music and storytelling. The visitors can also stay at Lorena Daniels's guesthouse. The business has generated more than 100,000 South African Rand (around US$16,000) since it began.

"It has been an extraordinary bridge-building exercise," says Louw. "We have taken a place on the margins of society and linked it to places all over the world. Now our people feel that they are connected to something more than just their own impoverishment. Each week they get perspectives from people from all over the world. They realise opportunities. They realise their own capacity because for the first time they are engaging with people from other lands on equal terms. That is the most powerful result."

"People are waiting on the government to make everything happen for them," he adds. "We can only create change ourselves. The government needs to catch up with us; they are only as effective as we as individuals are. So if we do nothing, how can we expect the government to do anything?"

But there is only so much that enterprising communities and individuals can do to become self-sufficient. One major challenge undermining efforts in Kalkfontein is housing. In Cape Town, housing is a major political issue because of a backlog of cases resulting from forced removals and other apartheid policies. In the Western Cape, some 213,000 houses have been built since 1994, with a further 250,000 promised between now and 2015.

But these numbers still fall far short of demand. Cape Town absorbs nearly 50,000 migrants a year, largely from the depressed Eastern Cape Province, and some settle in Kalkfontein. No sooner has a family been elevated from a shack to a house than somebody new is there to take over the shack.

Despite these pressures, Kalkfontein has been a reasonable success story in terms of housing, with around 80 per cent of residents living in government-built houses. The rest live in shacks, awaiting houses. Their precarious existence was highlighted in January 2006, when a fire destroyed around 100 shacks.

Federal minister of housing, Lindiwe Sisulu recently acknowledged that most municipalities do not have the mandate or the capacity to deliver housing. Yet the municipalities bear the brunt of the failure of the provincial government to deliver. She promised to allow municipalities more local powers to assign housing as long as they could demonstrate sound financial plans and systems of accountability, appropriate governance arrangements and systems for developing the capacity of the provinces and municipalities to manage the system.

ANC councillor Maurice Cornelissen doubts the urban regeneration efforts by local residents will amount to much.

"Kalkfontein will always be a township," says Cornelissen, who plans to live in a shack for three months this year in order to gain a better understanding of the housing problem. "The problem is when anybody creates enough wealth in the area they move to a better area and so the wealth doesn't stay here."

Cornelissen confirms that the council does not have any policies, incentives or interventions in place to try and keep revenue in Kalkfontein and ensure that the internal economy is strengthened.

"We haven't received any assistance or support from the council so far, even though our value has been recognised and even though we've engaged at length with the council," says Jethro Louw. "But there is us."

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