Pictures at an enumeration

December 14, 2009 | AHI activities, Cities, Durban, Finance, SDI, Slums, South Africa, Theory

By: David A. Smith


Singing about a better life: the Durban enumeration


“Have you ever been to an enumeration?” asked my hostess at the Gates Foundation convening.  She had brought together all the grantees under the Urban Poverty Limited Learning Initiative, including ourselves, for two days of brain-cudgeling on what we had individually and collectively learned, so far in our respective grants, about the complex challenge of alleviating urban poverty.  On the third day, we had a chance to go as individuals to see an event.  The Durban affiliate of uTshani and FED-UP, South African’s Federation of the Urban Poor, which in turn is a member of AHI’s customer Slum Dwellers International, was holding the first enumeration in Durban.


Durban is South Africa’s third city, after Cape Town and Johannesburg (some might say fourth, after Pretoria).  Long the capital of Natal, now KwaZulu Natal, it is a gritty industrial port with a magnificent seafront and a slowly reviving downtown being given radical ablative surgery in anticipation of the 2010 World Cup.  Radiating from the center in concentric rings like ripples of a stone dropped in a pond are hillside settlements, each outer ring less formal than the one before.


The Durban hillside, carpeted with houses


For that is the nature of tidal wave urbanization in the global South.  People move to the city for a better life for themselves and their children. 


As we arrived, school was letting out


They need to live affordably.  Because the value of urban land is a function of the earning power of those who live or work on it, for the structures close to town, even the smallest inhabitable space they can afford – a single-room building only 100 feet square with an outhouse nearby – is unaffordable.  So they move out until there is a low-value plot of land large enough to accommodate a self-built house, and build one.


Informal house being enumerated, Durban


Multiply that by hundreds of people moving to the city every week, everywhere, and the city grows and grows.  On the periphery, informality rules, outstripping any knowledge that the formal city has.


On the city’s maps, this is green space


So we drove, a dozen of us, out and out from the gleaming downtown, past the soaring white new stadium – it really is beautiful, past the smooth two-lane roadways, past the gradually diminishing shopping centers and grocery stores, off the bitumen, and up into the dirt hills. 


Someone asked, are we still in the city?  Yes, we were.  We came to the big tent, and got out.


A celebration, a fair, or a political event?  A little of each.


Patrick Magabhula of uTshani, whose group had organized and scheduled this enumeration, led us under the big tent to a long dais at its front, with empty chairs.  To my astonishment, we were directed into those chairs, the honored guests at the feast.  We as in Slum Dwellers International – Jockin and Sheela and Somsook, and the rest of us white folk as attendants and courtiers.  Our entry was greeted by singing – chorus after chorus of delighted women ululating in tune and time.


The guests are here!  Let the celebration begin!


Someone told me that their Zulu lyrics said, We are despoiling our beautiful country with our ugly houses, and we want houses as beautiful as our country.


(Aside from its emotive power, I thought that was a brilliant posture: to demand better housing not for oneself but for one’s city and country.  It happens to be true, yet it is simultaneously brilliant messaging.)


Patrick had been passionate about getting us here.  This was Durban’s first venture into citizen-led enumeration, and he importuned us to come.  Sitting there, feeling the energy, I understood: we are your witnesses.


They brought us drinks, nuts, potato chips and pretzels, and they sang until Patrick quieted them.


Amandla!” he shouted, swinging his arm forward to inspire the crowd.  “Amandla!” the crowd shouted back.


He spoke in passionate and happy Zulu.  We want houses, we want to be part of the city.


Patrick Magabhula in full expository oration


Today, he told them, we will be counted.  Today is the beginning.


“Today is the beginning.”


As always in these urban change-making environments, the leadership is women.


Committee member


The women are in the circle, the men cluster on its edges, watchful.


Women under the tent, men nearby, gradually moving closer




Listening to Patrick orate


An enumeration, as the term implies, is a counting of place, people, and property – done by the people themselves who live there.


Enumeration map of the neighborhood


It’s done with low-tech but reliable materials, using the poor’s own labor as the substitute for technology.


Using a roller to size houses, rooms, streets, plots of land


All at once – one day, one morning – people from the community fan out to every house, and every household, and collect information, in a standardized way.  The people’s census.


Easy to read, easy to compile, and verified on the spot: a household survey


Yet critical to the enumeration is not that it is done by the informal people, but that it is accepted by the formal city.  Months of negotiations had led to these moments, where the city had slowly, even grudgingly, come to accept that there were more people living on this particular hillside than the city had thought.


South Africa, you see, takes urban citizenship seriously.  Every adult household is entitled to a one-time capital subsidy, with a face amount of R54,000 (the visible subsidy) and a total value closer to R140,000 (meaning about R85,00 of invisible subsidy), for home purchase, home construction, and ancillary infrastructure (from the invisible subsidy).  Enumerating people and their property enables them to access that capital subsidy, which is what motivates them.  Over-enumerating them compels the municipality to deliver the invisible subsidy, which worries the city. 


Throughout South Africa, I was told on other days by many other people, the single biggest breakdown in delivery is at the municipal level.  From bankers to developers to researchers to consultants, everyone with whom I spoke fingered municipal incapacity as the blockage.


Enumeration by the people themselves represents outsourcing an essential governmental function both to accelerate its delivery and to create political standing for the poor themselves.  If you won’t do it for us, we will do it for ourselves and make you acknowledge us.


That’s why our presence mattered.  Here was the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, standing at the dais, telling the assembled gathering, Amandla!  We see what you do today, we recognize your rights as people.  When I come back here next year, she told them, I want to see houses!  They roared with approval.  Of such moments are personal pledges made.


The speeches over, the business of enumeration taking place and winding up, we toured to see the consequences of enumerating.  Start with new houses. 


While the South African capital subsidy was originally intended to stimulate new formal production – and to this day, it principally does – it is a demand-side subsidy, meaning an entitlement of acknowledged citizens.  One can access it to build one’s own house, a house which one has designed.  Like this:


The self-designed house


House maquette, made from a corrugated box


Rooms laid out inside


As I understand it, to access the capital subsidy, one has to show that one lives somewhere.  Of course the people do – they live in houses they have built themselves, like this one:


Showing his house: self-built, of sun-baked adobe and wattle


Again and again I was struck that though people will sleep in the meanest of dwellings, they dress better than they sleep:


Just under 100 square feet total, but note the wall coverings


And they speak better than they dress.


Describing how a new house will change his life.


People will improve their homes when they believe it will be they who benefits from the improvement.  For that, you need security of tenure, and access to capital subsidy.  Enter the map:


Every house, every outhouse, every dirt road, recorded and listed


The map also captures data about the existing structures.


Painted on the house are its dimensions: 4.4 x 9.2 meters (435 square feet)


While the land was being surveyed, and the houses measured and inventoried, the people were interviewed, each a four-page profile of core verifiable information: name with identification number, house with plat number, age, people in household:


A profile of a particular family in a particular place


Together with information regarding the property and its status:


Note question 3.4: “Is the house yours?”  And the follow-up, “Yes, self-built”


Equally important to the compilation is the quality control that went into the information.  The City of Durban had observers, and before the information would be uploaded they would sign off on the documents’ validity. 


What is important is not principally what happened – it totaled a few hours’ work, and resulted in a stack of papers with information.  Papers that had legal validity to the city of Durban, hence economic, judicial, and political consequences. 


I realized with a shiver that I’d seen this dynamic before – at real estate closings.  The same curious convergence: months of work, negotiations, bringing people together, culminating in a gathering where papers are filled out and signed, then taken to government for recordation. 


Information becomes part of the legal reality.  A bargain is struck, a bargain with consequences. 


In a closing, it’s about property and money and future obligations.  So too in an enumeration – property and money and future obligations.


The city has now taken cognizance of this neighborhood, its people, and their property. 


Enumeration is the inauguration of urban citizenship.


A stack of citizenship rights: the enumeration’s output