UJ, Soweto residents designing solutions to fight poverty

Community and government efforts to improve lives in Doornkop or ‘Snake Park’, Soweto, was the theme of a new book launched by the residents and the Centre for Social Development in Africa (CSDA), University of Johannesburg (UJ) on 24 July 2018, at the Doornkop community hall.

Development, Social Policy and Community Action. Lessons from below” from the Human Sciences Research Council Press, tells the story of how people in communities such as Doornkop use social grants and services to support themselves and others.

In-depth community based research conducted in Doornkop, Soweto, over a decade by researchers from the Centre for Social Development Africa at the University of Johannesburg, has captured these voices. Doornkop is one of the ten poorest wards in Johannesburg, South Africa’s largest city. It is home to 61 000 people, most of whom live in extreme poverty and in stressed circumstances.

“In this way it questions myths about how people make a living and view their lives” said UJ’s Prof Leila Patel, one of the authors at the book launch.

Over 250 residents celebrated the launch. The book provides a rich description of people’s hopes and struggle to make ends meet amid coping with high rates of poverty, depression, young motherhood, youth unemployment and service delivery concerns. The findings came from a series of research studies conducted over the past ten years with residents and NGO, Humana People to People.

The research was done by UJ and Utrecht University students and academics. At the launch, residents asked questions about where to access services, they spoke about unemployment, worries about corruption, and opportunities for volunteering, food gardens that the City is planning and how to become involved in community action.

Speaking at the event, Tinashe Mushayanyama, Acting Head of Social Development at the City of Johannesburg shared practical information about how and where to access the Extended Social Package of free water and electricity for those in need. “We plan to use the research findings to guide the City’s social development programmes and to work with local organisations to find solutions,” said Mr Mushayanyama.

Siphumelele Clinic health workers, Tsepiso Sekhoboko, and Mojalefa Matshela also shared relevant information on the services that the clinic offers. Important messages are found in the book. Firstly is the pressure of living in poverty. This is what some of residents told Sophie Plagerson and Tessa Hochfeld: “There is a lot of poverty here, many people are struggling; they are not working. Secondly, residents especially women suffer from high rates of depression and anxiety – 43% caregivers of children have a high incidence of depression and anxiety. Thirdly, residents of Doornkop care about each other, they try to help each other where they can. There are strong signs of a spirit of Ubuntu in Doornkop.”

A final message was directed to government and stakeholders: “listen to the residents- Learn from how they are trying to improve their own lives. Involve them in the search for solutions to overcome poverty. The research points to more nuanced strategies to address poverty and exclusion by learning from below,” concluded, Prof Patel.

The editors of the book argued that “Solutions to poverty and inequality are often designed, implemented and evaluated in a top-down manner, thereby disregarding the views and agency of poor citizens themselves”. Addressing this gap, the authors explored how government assistance, through social grants and services, as well as community support mechanisms provide solutions to citizens in poor communities and the ways that they perceive and make use of such interventions.

Prof Leila Patel
Prof Leila Patel
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