Present and Visible: Home Building

Present and Visible: Napier Settlement and its Stories, a co-produced book by the MPhil Southern Urbanism cohort, community researchers and NGO People’s Environmental Planning (PEP) is structured on key themes that shape the settlement and stories of families living on it, their struggles and aspirations for homes and for better lives, for safe housing, for secure access to infrastructure, and for sustainable livelihoods. To build this focus, narratives of settlement families’ and their household’s histories are interspersed throughout the book. Critical themes emerged through our collaborative research, ranging from home building, and placemaking through gardening, to the challenges and possibilities of livelihoods such as farm work and self-run small businesses.

In this post we explore the theme of home building. The thematic aims to understand how people build; starting from the process of securing a plot for themselves and their families. We focused on the stories of three residents who are referred to here as, the Planner (Sizwe Majavu), the Architect (Mziwothando Lungephi) and the Manager (Nolwethu Kakana, who goes by the name, Lele). Mziwothando and Sizwe both live in the settlement, but their journeys have been very different.

Their homes look different as well because of how the systems and processes of building have changed over time. Lele is a resident as well as a representative for CAM in the settlement. Since her appointment as a squatter controller, she has played a role in managing the settlement and assisting people to get plots for their homes. We explore the structural changes, material and official, that have occurred in the settlement, pieced together through the stories of our three respondents. These stories are drawn from interviews, observations, and drawings of homes.

One of the most intriguing houses in the settlement, in terms of its design, was that of Mziwothando. We saw his house from the main road that goes into the settlement and we thought to ourselves, “We have to talk to the owner and see this house”. All we saw was a double storey that stood out from other structures. When we went to look at it, we saw the double storey was separate from the rest of the house. The main structure was L-shaped with two bedrooms, a kitchen, and a living room. There was a garage which had a room on top of it.

Mziwothando, is a forty-year-old man from the Eastern Cape, who moved to Napier in 2009 with his wife. When he moved to Napier, there was no squatter controller the job that is assigned to Lele now. He was informed about the process of getting a letter to build on municipal land and went to CAM himself to get permission to build his house. When he was allocated a plot, it was comparatively larger than what is currently given because there were fewer residents in the settlement at the time. Mziwonthando’s plot was even bigger because it happened to be located on the periphery of the settlement at the time. He said the process of the allocation of land included the municipal representatives putting sticks on the ground earmarking how much land he could use. They did not use a tape measure or other tools of measurement; hence he did not know the exact plot size he was allocated.

Mziwothando initially built a house with only one room and kept adding additional rooms every time family members came to live with him. In 2016, he built a garage for his car and later added a room on top of the garage as a storeroom for his tools because he had no designated place to keep them. He built his house himself and he did it exactly the way he imagined it. He has a lot of tools because, like most men in the settlement, he works on a farm and often receives tools from his employers. Mziwothando does not sell these tools to anyone, he keeps them for future use.

In his home, Mziwothando lives with his wife and child. While we were interviewing him outside, his wife was inside watching TV. There were lots of children playing in his yard and the neighbours were hanging out there as well. The children were playing in an old car next to his garage, some were going up and down the double storey garage chasing each other along the stairs. This was by far the most neighbour-friendly house we had been to in Napier.

One of the most important people we were introduced to when we arrived in Napier, was Nolwethu, also known as Lele. Nolwethu is a community leader, one of five elected by the community. She is currently also a squatter controller in the settlement, a position created by the municipality in their efforts towards managing informal settlements.

She is 33 years old and was born in the Eastern Cape. She moved to Napier in 2005 in search of employment. When she explained it to us, she described a squatter controller as a person that monitors the number and quality/size of structures, the legitimacy of occupation, as well as informing people about the process of getting a plot in the settlement. She is basically the eyes and ears of CAM when it comes to dealing with informal structures in the area.

We asked Lele about what people in the community thought about her role as a squatter controller, and her response was that people think she is a spy for the municipality. The community was not informed about the introduction of a squatter controller in the settlement. This made it hard for her to do her job because people think she is stepping over the line. When she sees someone building, she must approach them and ask them for the letter of approval from the municipality; if they do not have it, she is required to report them to her supervisor in the municipality. Another challenge that Lele faces in her job is that people come and report issues that are not related to her duties, for example, crime, plumbing issues, blockages, and so on.

As more and more people move into the area, Lele’s job keeps getting more challenging because she must monitor the increasing number of structures. She said that some people do not like to follow the rules or even be told what to do by her because she is a woman and because she is younger than most of the people whose houses she has to oversee. We asked Lele how she liked living in the settlement; her response was that she did not feel safe living there because she often gets threats from residents who do not want to follow the rules. She does not see herself living in Napier for long. She plans to move back to the Eastern Cape to be with her family. Lele is a single mother of three, she would like to get a better, less stressful job so that she is able to take better care of her family.

“Being a strong, hardworking and independent woman is what keeps me going”

Lele Kakana

We were also interested in talking to people who owned plots but had not ‘finished’ building their houses yet. On the periphery of the settlement, where recent plots had been allocated, lay structures that had only wooden frames for the walls and roof, and a fence around the yard.

We were introduced to Sizwe Majavu, a 29-year-old man who, at the time of the interview, was staying at his friend‘s house in the settlement, with his wife and new-born baby. Sizwe applied for and received a letter confirming the allocation of a plot from the CAM on the 15th of January 2020. It had been three weeks since he had gathered enough materials to build the frame of the house as well as the fence bordering his yard.

Sizwe explained that he spoke to Lele regarding his need for a shelter and she referred him to CAM. Sizwe built the frame of the house in a single day, he said that, if he had more material, he would build his entire house in one go. He was grateful that his friend had accommodated him and his family, but he was excited that he had received a plot of his own and that he could build a home for his family. The element of independence that came with getting a plot gave him a sense of pride and achievement.

His biggest motivation for getting a place of his own was his family, his wife and the baby. His wife has a sewing business. She makes church clothes, school uniforms, and alters clothing items for people who live in and around the settlement. Since they are staying in someone else’s house, his wife does not have enough space to run her business properly; she needs her own working space. Sizwe works on a farm and he is still collecting materials to finish building his house. He has a clear plan for what he wants to build and how he wants to build it. He explained to us that he wants to have a bedroom, a living room, a working area for his wife, and a kitchen. The kitchen will be built as an extension to the current structure of the house. Sizwe’s plot is not as big as other older plots in the settlement, but he seemed happy that he has it, and was very happy to show it to us.

Both of our builders, (Mziwothando and Sizwe) had very different encounters with the municipality in terms of getting access to a plot. Their motivations for building were also quite different. As shown in the narrative, Mziwothando has a larger plot than Sizwe because he moved to Napier when the settlement had only a few residents and therefore plenty of space for its occupants at the time. As time went by the settlement evolved and the demand for plots increased. This is where Lele comes in: as the manager, she works with the municipality to maintain an order of the structures in the settlement. She also helps people who are in need of housing to go through the proper channels for accessing or registering their plots, as she has done for Sizwe. Whether the plot is large or small, it brings joy to its occupants and provides a home for families. The process of building a house is not separate from home-making; they are intermingled. We have seen that plot size does not limit creativity and building materials, and styles of building differ from door to door.