Planact 30th Anniversary, August 2016: Reflections on Planact’s Role in South African History

This briefing outlines Planact’s unique role in transforming South African communities over the last 30 years. On 26 August 2016, Planact will commemorate the organisation’s 30-year anniversary with a one day celebration, where founders, funders, community leaders, local development practitioners and sector partners will reflect on the theme ‘Towards a realisation of inclusive urban development and deepened democracy’.
The 30-year anniversary event will celebrate Planact’s success in providing meaningful development interventions over the last three decades and filling gaps as outlined in this article. Partners will reflect on the past experiences, opportunities and challenges that Planact currently faces and will face in the future. The anniversary will also address the question ‘what form of Planact we want to see over the next 20 years, especially in promoting equity in service delivery and inclusivity’. Partners will further explore how to improve development interventions applied in communities, and how to better collaborate with state institutions and the private sector in the development process.

For detailed information on Planact’s work, refer to

Making history in apartheid- era South Africa

Planact’s background

Planact is a non-governmental organisation (NGO) established in 1985 by a group of urban development professionals committed to social and political transformation in South Africa and mainly concerned with built-environment issues such as housing and basic services delivery. Its mission is to facilitate community development processes that enhance participatory governance at the local level, improve people’s living conditions and alleviate poverty. The organisation works mainly in the urban areas of Gauteng and Mpumalanga provinces. It empowers people who lack decent living conditions, improves their environment and alleviates poverty. After 30 years of existence, the organisation proudly reflects on its history, challenges and successes over the three decades 1985-1994, 1995-2005 and 2006-2015. While the organisation has evolved, the mission, objectives and interventions (participatory processes, empowering disadvantaged communities, human settlements and advocacy), have remained consistent pillars of the programmes (participatory governance and integrated human settlements) implemented in Gauteng and Mpumalanga. However, Planact has also evolved to adapt to the socio-economic and political realities of South Africa.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         Putting people first in development

Planact is responsive to the country’s ever-changing social, economic, environmental and political landscapes, and this is illustrated by the identity statements constructed during Planact’s different life-cycles. The original identity statement – ‘committing skills to the homeless, the poorly housed and those that do not have access to sound professional services in relation to their living environment and the struggle of a free, united, non-racial and democratic South Africa in which all may participate at all levels of society’ - has been redefined to ‘promoting sustainable development and good governance’. However, core values of social facilitation, capacity development, research and advocacy remain central to Planact’s work.
Planact prioritises development and puts people and communities at the centre of its work. This resonates with the name of the organisation ‘Plan act’ which suggests an organisation concerned with planning and active implementation of community projects. Putting people at the centre of development is evident in that Planact uses a social facilitation intervention methodology to execute its core programmes. In an informal settlement which lacks adequate basic services (water, electricity and proper sanitation) and tenure security, Planact encourages joint working between communities and municipalities for basic service delivery.
Community engagement is achieved by:

  • Establishing a community structure that represents the community in negotiations with their municipality over service delivery;
  • Providing capacity building on local government processes such as the Integrated Development Plans and Municipal Budgeting, leadership, conflict resolution and administrative skills;
  • Mentoring and coaching the community leadership and other key individuals in the communities.

The current staff team of thirteen is multidisciplinary in nature, including town planners, architects, housing specialists, an urban development specialist, an accountant and a communication specialist. This diversity allows the ongoing shaping and advancing of the organisation’s programmes and social facilitation intervention methodology.
On its 30-year anniversary, the organisation proudly reflects back on its history, challenges and successes experienced over the three distinct phases” 1985-1996, 1996-2005 and 2006-2015.

Role of Planact during the apartheid period- 1985-1994

The first period (1980s) was a time of great instability in South Africa. A major part of the decade was marked by political turmoil in townships throughout the country, and thousands of people lost their lives to intensified violent protests. In this period, Planact addressed the ‘urban crisis’ which characterised the towns and cities as a result of the resistance to apartheid and economic exploitation, and the articulation of grassroots demands by social movements. In the 1980s, therefore, Planact’s programmes focussed on responding to the repercussions of apartheid and advocating against segregation-based policies. The apartheid system necessitated the intervention of NGOs to serve the marginalised black population.
To address this gap, Planact worked on housing issues and urban development, and the development activities mainly covered three broad areas:

  • Advice and technical support to community organisations on housing and related activities;
  • Advice and technical support to trade unions on housing, land legislation, financing and employer social-responsibility programmes;
  • Technical assistance to the residents of informal settlements to provide basic services. 

Planact’s achievements during the period included the provision of services to the Wattville Concerned Residents Committee (WCRC). In this development project Planact provided institutional support to the WCRC to negotiate with the Benoni Council for the right to retain and develop the land. The negotiations were successful and for the first time in apartheid South Africa, a black community won the right to own and develop land previously reserved for whites.

Relevancy of Planact in the immediate post-apartheid period- 1995-2005

This second period (1995-2005) was characterised by South Africa’s infancy stage of democracy and the process of globalisation, permitting market forces to dominate local and global economies. The latter inevitably prioritised globalised production, functioning internal market systems and accumulation. The immediate post-apartheid period ushered in new policies based on non-discriminatory and democratic principles and focused on the right of all South Africans to participate in, influence and benefit from national policy making. The transition of South Africa to democracy led to a new era which required intervention strategies focusing on redressing the social ills created by the apartheid system and developing previously marginalised areas. In turn, the South African government realised that inclusivity was crucial to improving the livelihoods of citizens, thus, positioned South Africa as a developmental state.
During the post-apartheid era, international donors redirected funding to the South African government to strengthen it. The country also experienced an increase in foreign investment. Despite an increase in foreign investment in the post-apartheid era, there remained inadequate economic growth and economic development for most of the Black African population. A sustainable and vibrant NGO community remained relevant and necessary for sustained development. Planact, like many other NGOs, worked with the marginalised poor in society and mobilised local communities. Planact’s interventions focused on local government policy, with activities including:

  • Engaging in innovative people centred approaches related to urban policy and practice;
  • Facilitating social and technical aspects of housing development related to the low-cost housing programmes;
  • Providing input into housing and local government policy development processes.

Planact’s input into the policy development process was illustrated by its involvement in the new White Paper on Local Government. Planact concluded that a transformed local government system would contribute towards social and economic development and deepen democracy.
Two other remarkable achievements of Planact during this period are:

  • Formulation of Bloemfontein City Council Strategy; Planact assisted in strategic planning, advising on recruitment and management transformation;
  • Tenure security in Diepsloot; Planact facilitated the recognition of the settlement by the Northern Metropolitan Local Council (NMLC) as a permanent settlement and incorporated its development into government planning processes.

Reinvigoration of Planact’s role a Decade-post apartheid period 2006-2016

Through promoting inclusivity

Although the apartheid period saw the exclusion of the majority of South Africans from various activities, the period 2006-2016 actually showed an increase in the rate of social inequality. Planact has seen globalisation prompt a transition in the way the state provides services. Where the state has flexibility to subcontract or outsource services such as water supply, waste collection and electricity supply, this has sometimes negatively affected poor communities. Planact has strengthened its role in advocating improved service delivery. In the process, the organisation promotes healthy and effective engagement between communities and the municipalities regarding service delivery. 

Despite the recognition of water and sanitation as global rights, certain communities in South Africa still suffer from poor basic services delivery. For instance, many communities (including Springvalley, Kwazenzele, Thembelihle Jabulani and Leandra) still have to cope with an inadequate water supply. Planact’s interventions therefore have mainly revolved around organising and supporting the communities, advocating for improved service delivery, and providing training.

Lack of inclusivity in local governance has become been a source of frustration for residents whose development needs remain unmet. Some low-income communities therefore experience frustration regarding participating in municipal processes such as the Integrated Development Plans and budgeting processes.

These communities express their dissatisfaction regarding basic service delivery (provision of water, electricity and waste management) in several ways, including petitions and protests. In many of its project areas, Planact has been successful in promoting effective engagement between the communities and municipalities so that violent protests have been avoided.

Financing and its implications

Whilst the 1970s and 1980s had seen a rise in funding granted to NGO projects, more recently there has been a dramatic decline in funding for NGOs. During the initial post-apartheid era, donors assisted the government with policy formulation and provided technical assistance. Many NGOs struggled to solicit funding and even sustain their programmes. However, Planact survived a financially challenging three years (2010 - 2013) caused by the changing trends in the NGO sector, which included a shift of donor funding to different areas of interests. Planact’s survival was achieved through the loyal support of donors, communities and partner organisations, coupled with a visionary leadership. Planact has successfully rebounded and retains a professional and multi-disciplinary team which is committed to delivering Planact’s mandate in Gauteng and Mpumalanga.

The current global economic recession means that Planact must formulate strategies to address the financial needs of its programmes. This includes designing interventions that align with donors’ priority areas. For this reason Planact continues to prioritise research that informs its interventions and policy recommendations. Furthermore, a communication department has been established to improve communication with partners and communities.
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