December 18, 2006

Initiative for squatter communities

Swaziland's civic and national authorities are tackling the growing blight of informal settlements with plans to make squatters the owners of their own properties, and allow them access to sanitary and other city services. The initiative began with the country's oldest slum, on the hill above the capital, Mbabane, and in 2007 will seek to transform a blighted community on the outskirts of the central commercial town of Manzini.
However, the initiative is as yet hardly understood by many of Swaziland's poor. They expect compensation for shacks that must be bulldozed to make way for paved streets, sewer lines and other infrastructure improvements necessary to establish truly functional and livable neighbourhoods. "Government put me in a new place, and they tore down my old home. I have received nothing," complains Eric Ngwenya of Masunduza in Mbabane.
Informal settlements can be found at present not only on the peripheries of towns, where shacks interspersed with muddy and foul rivulets of sewage sprawl over former pasture or farming land. The poor or homeless newcomers to urban areas, drawn by the prospect of jobs, also amass in a checkerboard of neglected sites within the towns themselves.
British colonial authorities, who made Mbabane the capital in 1902, sought to discourage Swazis from having permanent urban addresses at a time when towns were for whites, and Swazis were intended to reside on subsistence farms administered by chiefs on communal Swazi Nation Land in rural areas. When national independence was achieved in 1968, the construction ban continued at informal settlements like Mangwaneni. The Mbabane City Council wanted a town plan in place before permanent housing was permitted. "Otherwise, we would have had haphazard building everywhere. We needed a street plan, sewage plan, sites set out for fire stations, schools, clinics and shops," said Napoleon Ntezinde, director of the Ministry of Housing's Urban Development Project.
The programme to bring order to the informal settlement chaos developed in response to a cholera outbreak in 1985. The sickness swept through Mbabane's informal settlements, which were subsequently seen not just as unsightly urban blights, but also as health hazards. "There were few dirt roads in these settlements 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," said Ntezinde.
The project proceeded under the philosophy that settlement dwellers who could possess their residents as plot owners would create the nucleus of a real community. Masunduza Township was surveyed in the late 1990s, and 1.500 potential residential plots were recorded. As of 2006, over 1.100 plots have been bought by their owners at roughly 1.445 dollars each. People are replacing their mud houses with cinderblock, permanent structures -- as they can afford these. Several hundred permanent structures are up, and project authorities are optimistic that all plots will have permanent structures built on them, as this is the plot owners' goal.
In Mbabane the project, partly financed by World Bank loans, has laid roads, brought in electricity through the Swaziland Electricity Board and water through the Swaziland Water Services Corporation - and surveyed home sites in preparation for coherent communities that would be incorporated into urban areas. However, the project ran into trouble when it was perceived by many Swazis as a home building scheme. Project officers were deluged with requests for home building grants. Many informal settlement residents saw this as their entitlement for having to endure slum conditions for years. "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 project.
A second controversy concerns the need for urban residents to pay property taxes, known as rates. City governments receive some support from the central government, but largely rely on rate payments to provide services, from road maintenance to rubbish removal. This has led to condemnation in newspapers, and concerns raised by civil society. (IPS)

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