Tariq Toffa

Mapping the South from the bottom up: power, possibility, and pedagogy at Sheffield Road informal settlement in Cape Town

Tariq Toffa, Cape Town Community Manager


Today at least two trajectories in contemporary mapping practices can be identified in South Africa (SA). The first is a 'quantitative' mapping (i.e. mapping more), necessitated by the scale and complexity of the modern city. The second — and less mainstream — trajectory is 'qualitative', engaging lived realities and needs on the ground rather than at a distance.

In an upgrading project of the informal settlement on Sheffield Road in the township of Philippi, on the periphery of Cape Town, a 'qualitative' practice was explored with some success. Formed in 1993, the dense settlement is strung out along a flood-prone road reserve and hence does not qualify for a government subsidy (see fig. 1). The upgrading of the settlement (2010-11) developed as the result of a successful partnership between a capacitated community, the South African SDI alliance (an alliance of NGOs affiliated to Shack/Slum Dwellers International and led by local NGO Ikhayalami), the City of Cape Town Informal Settlement Department and the University of Cape Town (UCT). The primary aim was to provide subsidised upgrading of shelters, 'blocking-out' of the settlement, and to deliver water and sewerage infrastructure in partnership with the City of Cape Town.

Ikhayalami's primary focus area of upgrading informal shelters using affordable technical solutions was offset by a research/mapping and community engagement process coordinated and led by architect and urban designer Sadiq Toffa of UCT's School of Architecture, Planning and Geomatics in 2010. The process sought not to impose a foreign solution upon the community, but rather to respect, research and map the existing agency and structures already developed by the community (social, technical, and environmental), and to workshop these issues to develop expertise and proposals.

The method entailed making a measured-up planning survey and door-to-door interviews, thus making visible the sophisticated social and organisational systems at work on the ground. This included different social/functional spaces, responses to drainage and flooding, self-businesses, and the locations of larger families who would be difficult to relocate (see fig. 2 and 3). The concept of formations of 'clusters' of shelters also developed as opposed to a more conventional perimeter block type, which would have destroyed much of the local organisation. Adjustable models were built thereof to involve end-users in the design of their own environments, and community savings were also organised at cluster-level, building a collective and ownership (see fig. 4).

Sheffield Road marks a turn-around from the 2004 landmark "N2 Gateway Project," a widely criticised, top-down upgrade of the Joe Slovo informal settlement in Cape Town. Sheffield Road, alternatively, is a landmark because it represents a partnership between the City of Cape Town, NGOs, and the community that resulted in the first successful bottom-up in situ upgrade. In the end, 13 'clusters' were 'blocked-out', 169 shelters were upgraded, and 19 additional flushing toilets, 3 taps, and 4 drains were fitted — all without the uprooting of residents which the former project entailed.

Despite successes and lessons learned, many critical challenges remain. Different goals and methodologies exist amongst various stakeholders, creating cause for friction. Other obstacles include time and budgetary constraints; but for the spatial disciplines, crucially, also the pedagogical, intellectual and social research skills needed to undertake such work — the intensive yet unglamorous social science nature of the research/mapping being painfully at odds with typically individualistic and product-oriented disciplines. New urban questions will either create rethinking of conventional pedagogy, methodology, and modes of practice, or it is a new market for business as usual.

Images: Fig. 1: Aerial view (Ikhayalami). Fig. 2: A washing and drying area (Ikhayalami). Fig. 3: 'Qualitative' research/mappings (courtesy of Sadiq Toffa). Fig. 4: (Bolnick 2011)