Know Your Community, Know Your Social Investment

Do social investors thoroughly research the geographic areas into which they launch development programmes? Tshikululu corporate social investment practitioner, Beatrice Watermeyer, compares three of Johannesburg’s historically informal areas to emphasise the stark differences between these three parts of one city.

Johannesburg is Africa’s most wealthy city. It is a sprawling, familiar, golden place of diversity and divergence, opportunity, opulence and optimism. Some of its citizens have been here all of their lives. Others are part of the constant influx of migrants from across the continent and the world, attracted by all that we know about Egoli.

The contrasting living standards among those that call Johannesburg home means that a significant portion of social investment spend country-wide, is spent here. What social investors really know about Johannesburg, however, may be lacking. And if aspects of this city are unresearched, we must question our acquaintance with even less-accessible parts of South Africa.

Consider Soweto (where most development and upliftment programmes are concentrated), Alexandra and Diepsloot. All three areas started as informal housing settlements but the differences in their histories, available amenities, current economic status and social pressures are striking given their proximity to each other. As such, a unique approach to social investment is required in each area to avoid money being expended on projects that are untargeted, damaging and inappropriate for their communities.

Soweto (the name a contraction of ‘South Western Townships’), now by far the largest of the three areas, traces its origins to the need for accommodation of black miners in the earliest days of Johannesburg. As the collective area to which black residents were forcibly relocated after 1948, Soweto is inextricably linked with apartheid history, legislation and protest.

Established in 1912 on the other side of the city, Alexandra was one of the few urban areas in South Africa where black people could own land by freehold title. Journalist Terry Bell, writing about Alexandra’s centennial, describes it as ‘…the first urban centre for the working class majority and home to important working class protests of the anti-apartheid era.’

Diepsloot, only created in 1991, is without apartheid-era credentials and the years of history that establishes a community culture. ‘Anyone older than 15 has come from a rural area, or foreign country, or has been evicted from a farm or smallholding in the vicinity, or from Alex, and has been moved to or sought refuge here in the last two decades,’ wrote Anton Harber in his book, Diepsloot.

Service delivery of water, sewage, electricity and basic infrastructure differs hugely in these three areas. Substantial investment into Soweto began during the late 1990’s and has continued ever since. This spend is nowhere near matched in Alexandra and Diepsloot is in the worst state with sewage running through some streets. Earlier this year, the water supply was contaminated. Some roads are almost non-existent. Harber opines that in Diepsloot ‘the government is running five years behind reality.’

Quoting from Census 2001, Soweto’s population was over 800 000, Alexandra’s just over 165 00 and Diepsloot’s just over 49 000. According to the media and other sources, these numbers are far underestimated now, but serve to illustrate the size of the three areas compared to each other.

To continue then the comparison of services, Soweto has over 260 primary schools and approximately 80 high schools. In Alexandra, there are 14 primary schools and two high schools. According to a survey on Diepsloot done by the Development Bank in 2008 and quoted by Anton Harber, ‘…just to meet contextual ‘local standards’ (and not national or international standards) the area needed six more primary schools, four more secondary schools.’

Soweto is served by the Chris Hani–Baragwanath Hospital, famous for being one of the largest hospitals in the world, and 20 clinics. A new hospital is also being built in Jabulani, Soweto with the promise that it will be finished by the end of 2012. Alexandra’s major health service provider is the Alexandra Health Centre and University Clinic. Edenvale Hospital, although not quite in Alexandra itself, is the closest hospital. As Harber points out, there are only two clinics in Diepsloot itself. Both are closed on weekends, which mean that the closest healthcare facility is Helen Joseph Hospital about 35 kilometres away.

Crime in all three areas is high compared to neighbouring suburbs, as far as reported statistics can tell us. Again, facilities and infrastructure are out of proportion – Soweto has 12 police stations, Alexandra has one which is shared with surrounding areas like Athol, and Diepsloot currently has only a mobile police station with two cars. In Diepsloot and Alexandra there are regularly reported incidents of ‘vigilante justice’ and it was here that most of 2008’s xenophobia attacks occurred. Soweto hardly featured.

It goes without saying that the areas of Soweto, Alexandra and Diepsloot cannot be reduced to mere numbers. However, consideration of these and other easily-researched statistics can suggest appropriate programmes and projects needed by each community. For example, youth and community-building initiatives may be more urgent in Diepsloot than in Soweto. Alexandra could respond well to crime prevention and racial tolerance interventions. Having a more established economy, targeted enterprise development initiatives may be appropriate in Soweto.

Before investing in any geographic area, it is essential to spend time exploring it, researching its history and talking to its residents about their needs and wants. After all, communities sharing geography can still be worlds apart.

- Beatrice Watermeyer is corporate social investment practitioner at Tshikululu Social Investments (TSI). This article first appeared on the TSI website

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