Present and Visible: Napier Settlement and its Stories

This new co-produced book seeks to render visible the often overlooked stories of people’s everyday lives in an informal settlement in a small town in the Western Cape, South Africa.

The City Research Studio is a cornerstone of the MPhil in Southern Urbanism programme. This year-long course is designed as an experimental and experiential spaces for students and faculty to engage in the City, to learn to walk, see, smell, touch, embrace, explore and reimagine the city through intimate encounters with space, place and people mediated by diverse research techniques and methodologies.

The first studio focusses on the lived experiences of housing policy in the South African context. The studio, presented in partnership with NGO People’s Environmental Planning (PEP), see the MPhil cohort teamed up with community researchers to do household interviews to collect people’s housing stories. In 2020 the research took place in the Napier Informal Settlement.

Tucked behind a hill, largely invisible, the Napier Informal Settlement is located on Napier’s town edge. This book aims to make the settlement, its living conditions, its families, their innovations, and the hardships that surround everyday life, visible. The Settlement is part of Napier, in the Cape Agulhas Municipality, integral to the town and its regional economy. The settlement is on municipal land and adjacent to a commonage, leased by the municipality to a local agricultural co-op. Relocated to this site in 2009 following the flooding and destruction of an older informal settlement on the river bank, it includes 235 structures, and at least as many if not more households and families. It is surrounded by agricultural land and a cemetery, adjacent to Smartie Town, an area of RDP housing between the settlement and the Napier main road, which, as part of a popular tourist route, is full of restaurants, B&Bs and guest houses.

The book 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. These narratives document the stories of families arriving in the settlement, their experiences in it, their struggles and successes in building homes on this site. 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.

Key challenges emerged in the research, particularly focused on infrastructure and its limits, the fundamental issue of access to toilets and the dangers of living next to waste. In sharing this material, the book charts a critical set of issues that shape the settlement, its leadership, families, and youth, a mix of urgent short-term needs, as well as key elements for longer term engagement with the Municipality on its development and upgrading. These materials are complemented by extracts of interviews with Municipal officials, as well as extracts of student essays and reflections, on these themes and the research process.