A women’s savings group founded two decades ago still has much to teach about empowerment and development.
When women in a poor area on the outskirts of Cape Town started a savings group in 1992, little did they know that they would still be inspiring development more than 20 years later. Dr Salma Ismail, a senior lecturer in adult education at UCT, presented the story of the Victoria Mxenge Housing Project as a case study at the Trialogue CSI Conference 2015, held in Johannesburg.
Saving was the key vehicle for mobilization for the women of what became the Victoria Mxenge Housing Project. The women, most of whom had little schooling, and who were working as domestic workers or sellers of fruit and vegetables, each put away R1 per day. Their experience of saving, lending and financial management provided a platform for the development of further skills.
Dr Ismail highlighted how the women of Victoria Mxenge used their existing knowledge and experience gained at school, in life and in political struggles, and combined it with new knowledge and expertise. The women became skilled negotiators, and made their voices heard in their quest for land and houses.
Their informal learning included skills in planning, designing and building houses. Dr Ismail described how they rejected the idea of the identical RDP houses, opting, instead, to design houses that suited their individual families.
An architect facilitated house modeling and costing in a series of informal workshops. The women shared their plans in a group, discussing their choices of design and construction, and learning from each other in the process.
As a result of this informal learning, and their achievements, the women gained confidence and consciousness, developing into community leaders and social activists. When their houses were complete, they invited ministers and community leaders to their celebrations, to see that poor people could be in charge of their own destiny and build their own houses.
They didn’t just build houses, but a sustainable community. A German donor provided a brick-making machine, and they pressed their own bricks. They raised funds to improve the roads. They started a lily garden to generate income. In the late 90s, they became a social movement, engaging critically with the state, responding to larger social issues such as HIV/AIDS and challenging gender relations.
After Ismail’s presentation, delegates discussed the lessons of the Victoria Mxenge Housing Project for other projects, organisations and for corporate social investment.
Delegates noted that the project included many elements that are identified as key to successful CSI projects. Housing was a real need identified by the community, not something that was imposed or dictated from outside of the community. The women were active participants. Collaboration and communication were central.
Capacitation of individuals and the larger community is a key concern for any CSI project. Informal learning was at the centre of the women’s success. Dr Ismail pointed out that informal learning is slow, but that learning through a process, with tangible results, builds confidence. Trust, accountability, participation and sharing of power are key.
The skills, knowledge, confidence and resilience that the women developed in the course of the process are life-long capacities that will benefit them – the kind of long-term impact that other projects would strive for.
Delegates felt that while many of the lessons of the Victoria Mxenge Housing Project have broad application, such a project would be difficult to replicate today. It was rooted in a particular time, with particular socio-political conditions. Post-94, the policy of Reconstruction and Development, land reform and restitution, legislation enabling African women to own land and houses, as well as the introduction of a once-off housing subsidy to assist the poor, all contributed to the specific environment in which this project operated. The housing sector has become increasingly complex, with different social movements making different demands. There was also a view that current conditions are less conducive to such a trusting, communal approach, and that people are more individualistic.
Although marginalized, these women were geographically close to Cape Town. Delegates felt that remote rural areas would have a more difficult time accessing power and resources.
“What happens when you’ve got the house?” asked one delegate, suggesting that CSI could play a role in the next phase of a development such as this one, with community-based income generating projects. Another suggested that they might view themselves as a business, rather than a social movement, and offer skills and services more broadly.
Dr Salma Ismail is the author of a book on this subject, The Victoria Mxenge Housing Project (UCT Press, 2015).
Written by Kate Sidley.