How informal communities are becoming sustainableBy Alexandria Polanosky, Multimedia Editor
During our first week in South Africa, my group and I visited the informal settlement of Enkanini. Such settlement are developed due to a lack of low-cost housing and land to build this housing on. What land is still available around Stellenbosch is used for upper and middle class housing, leaving virtually nothing for those that do not fall into those categories. Enkanini is an expansion of the formal settlement neighboring it; the residents expanded outward on to land that is set aside as a nature reserve to build their shacks and communities. Enkanini began developing about twelve years ago and is home to nearly 10,000 people. I could show you hundreds of photos of the state the residents live in among their shacks, which can often reach temperatures nearly ten degrees hotter than the outside, but nothing compares to the experience of actually being there and walking among the community. One student from Stellenbosch working toward an initiative there to provide residents with electricity stresses how students can learn differently within the settlement rather than within the classroom. He says the difference evolves from the sensations you experience. When you’re actually there “you see it, you smell it, you hear it.” The smell for me was surely the most impactful part of the experience. I would describe it as what I imagine burning trash and sewage to smell like, and it lingers with you long after leaving the community. A major contributor to it is the poor sewage system, which leaves 150 people to a bathhouse, and fails sending sewage running into the streets.
“You see it, you smell it, you hear it.”
Despite what is surely a lower standard of living to us, the sense of community and the perseverance of the residents of Enkanini leaves you with incredible hopefulness. While my group was there, we learned about iShack, which is a student-run initiative associated with Stellenbosch University to provide residents with electricity. The program is led out of a student built structure within the community insulated by tires, dirt, and straw and created with minimal cement for its foundation. iShack’s concept is to live comfortably and is the first attempt at changing and informing policy in urban areas here. The constitution of South Africa promises every citizen the rights to basic needs including electricity and water, but because many settlements like Enkanini are not legally formed, they are denied public access to such resources. iShack provides a basic package of 2 indoor lights, a spotlight, a phone charger and a TV, which are all solar powered, for a small monthly fee. Residents simply apply for the program and the items are installed shortly after and kept running as long as fees are paid. Though one may not consider a phone charger and TV basic necessities, the need to communicate and be connected with those around you is a vital part of society here. By giving residents access to these simple amenities, an increased sense of belonging and responsibility follows. iShack is in its third year in the settlement and is successfully decentralizing the community and creating a sense of ownership within it. Due to solar panels providing the power, those in the settlement participating in the program avoid the rolling blackouts experienced by the rest of the area. In addition to this initiative, 80% of the residents of Enkanini have jobs and are working toward supporting themselves and their families. There are also efforts toward alternative bathhouse options that are less wasteful, cleaner and, therefore, better maintained. One look at the informal settlement leaves you distraught at the state residents are living in, but a closer look reveals a striving, tight-knit community doing what it can to provide and sustain itself.