December 30, 2005

New approach to shanty towns

Rather than bulldozing the countries growing informal settlements, Swazi authorities plan to give residents property rights and access to services under a series of new urban development projects. "We want beautiful houses, not those built with stick and mud," explained Elmond Tsabedze, a 60-year-old shop owner who lives in an informal settlement known as Mvakwelitje, which hugs the rocky mountain slopes overlooking the capital, Mbabane.

For the past decade, Mbabane City Council has imposed a building ban on permanent structures until a plan could be devised to bring order to Mvakwelitje and other rapidly growing ad-hoc settlements. "Every rainy season we pray there will not be another cholera outbreak like the one that claimed lives in 1985. To outsiders and officials who want to make Mbabane and Manzini [the country's commercial hub 35 km east of the capital] modern cities, the informal settlements are a blight on the urban landscape. But they are no fun for residents, either," said Siphisile Vilakati, a Manzini healthcare worker.

More than a third of Swazis live below the poverty line, and 40 percent of all adults out of a population of 1 million are HIV-positive. Vilakati lists the hardships faced by the settlement residents she assists through a home-based care project for AIDS patients: "There are few dirt roads and no paved roads, sometimes not even footpaths; no water, no sanitary facilities, few or distant schools, stores or clinics, no landline phone system, no electricity." The Urban Development Project, under the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development and partly financed by World Bank loans, is one initiative launched to address these needs. In Mbabane it has laid roads, brought in electricity and water, and surveyed settlements to be upgraded.

"The Urban Development Project does not build houses. It creates conditions for owners to develop their plots in planned, serviced communities," said John Lowsby, a consultant with the scheme.

The Mbabane plan requires residents to purchase their plots for a second time, but under conditions that vary according to the homeowners' ability to pay. The construction suspension would be lifted, and plot owners would be free to construct rental properties on their land, subject to density and health considerations, or sub-divide and sell their plots. Unsafe areas will be excluded from the plan. Informal settlements established in flood planes will be evacuated, with residents offered government-built houses in line with a resettlement scheme currently used for home owners displaced by highway and other public works construction.

While residents and grassroots NGOs applaud the governments' efforts to bring services and planning to informal settlements, controversy surrounds the requirement that plot owners eventually pay property taxes and get billed for their water and electricity consumption. "Many of the people who live here get their water from springs, or (communal) neighbourhood standpipes at very low cost. They gather twigs from around to build fires to cook, so they don't need electricity," said Nathie Dlamini, an unemployed waiter who lives in the Moneni settlement east of Manzini, an area surveyed by the Urban Development Project for upgrading in 2006. Maria Bulunga, a 74 year-old resident of Mangwaneni settlement in Mbabane, quoted in a city report on resettlement, said "Many people are happy that they are getting nice houses - what they don't realise is that in the new houses they won't be able to use their charcoal or wood stoves. They will be using only electric source, which will lead to a high electricity bill that they won't be able to pay. They don't realize that actually they are getting thrown out of here, and ultimately they will get thrown out of there too when they can't pay." Bulunga and other settlement residents are aware of city government's periodic auctioning of plots whose owners fail to pay property taxes. The Mbabane survey found that the elderly, who have insufficient or no income to pay property taxes, were particularly concerned.

Proponents of the taxation system note that this revenue subsidises improvements required by all residents, such as road construction, street lighting, garbage collection, sanitation and other infrastructure and serves to protect the environment. The Mbabane survey found that residents were far more willing to pay once the concept was explained to them: "Not one of the families we talked to have the slightest notion of the purpose of rates, when we explained the concept they were much more accepting of the fact that rates are a necessity." The survey concluded that "the commonly held belief that people are opposed to or unwilling to pay rates or development costs is largely a myth." Staggered or deferred payments, special subsidies for the elderly, and other schemes to ease the burden on the poor will be folded into the informal settlement upgrade schemes. The goal is to create a new group of property owners who will be able to acquire bank loans for home improvements, have access to city services, and transform their own communities and quality of life. (IRIN)

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