Billed for success, yet ruined by poor communication. This past November, the Western Cape Department of Human Settlements (DHS) organised a much-lauded inaugural Housing Indaba (a large-scale community consultation conference) in Cape Town's city centre. This two-day session aimed to communicate and explore the DHS' newly-adopted strategy on Housing and Human Settlements and to create a new 'information sharing and mutual collaboration platfom' to 'enhance intra-civil society dialogue on topical issues'.
Yet quite the opposite happened: a fundamental breakdown of communications between different stakeholders brought out the worst in people, with mass negativity and inaction dominating the conference instead of a new 'way forward' on urban housing solutions.
Helping to chair and organise the conference was the Development Action Group, a housing advocacy NGO well known and generally respected by both government and civil society groups. Various government officials in the DHS, representatives from different local NGOs and members from the private sector all attended the indaba, giving it a much-needed diversity of constituents. Patricia De Lille, Cape Town' mayor, served as the conference convenor, followed by the Premier of the Western Cape Helen Zille as the keynote speaker. Everything looked set for success.
Questions led to shouting matches, to accusations, and ultimately to rally cries, both by civil society organisations and by politicians. From one side emerged cries of 'Socialism!' and 'Cuba!', and on the other, 'Democracy!' and 'Elections!'
Immediately following the keynote speech however, well-intentioned Q&A sessions exposed the immense underlying tensions and distrust between civil society, politicians and provincial departments. Questions led to shouting matches, to accusations, and ultimately to rally cries, both by civil society organisations and by politicians. While civil society accused politicians and the DHS of not being fair and equal in housing implementation, politicians accused civil society of not being organised enough and not integrating into the political/election process. From one side emerged cries of 'Socialism!' and 'Cuba!', and on the other, 'Democracy!' and 'Elections!'
From there the conference frayed even further, Breakaway sessions designed to discuss larger and more thematic issues became dominated by long strings of case-specific individual complaints from residents of Cape Town's splintered and decaying townships. Some participants got angry, others completely shut off. Productive dialogue ceased to occur.
The end came sooner than expected: With absolutely no forward momentum, the conference finished prematurely on the second day with the accusation by the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign that the DHS and the Development Action Group had failed to follow through with allegedly promised transportation funding for the group's attendes.
Post-indaba, what remains in peoples' minds is the biting animosity, mistrust and complete lack of action that swirled throughout every minute of the conference.
Pulling something out of the ruins
Perhaps one of the most critical learning points to emerge from this broken-down conference actually stems from the breakdown itself.The DHS wanted to bring people together to one-round table of partnership, and civil society organisations came with every intention to inspire change among politicians. The breakdown did not originate in a fundamental difference in goals, but from one problem that permeated the whole event: a lack of effective communication.
People spoke in many ways at the conference: under each other, over each other, at each other, about each other, behind each other. Very scant few actually spoke with each other in a true spirit of partnership and compromise. Ego filled the room; people held fast to the notion that they were right and that all other parties were wrong. Lots of shouting happened, yet nobody listened.
The stifling ways in which individuals aired their complaints drowned out the overall goal of partnership through dialogue and frustrated officials to the point of shutdown. It would be unfair to say that these complaints were not relevant. But the fact that they overtook and dominated this indaba illustrates the serious lack of a functional forum for residents to air them in a way that is listened to and acted on by government officials.
Worse yet, many civil society organisations continued to belabour the master narrative of 'the struggle'. This idea certainly had its place in the anti-apartheid movement when it emerged, but the overuse of the 'us-vs.-them' mentality within a group meeting serves only to alienate government officials (and anyone else not 'with' the activists) and discourage most other members of civil society from paricipating in beneficial collaboration. Use of 'the struggle' casts the government in the role of constant adversary and fails to achieve the overall goal of inclusive and more equal urban development through a spirit of partnership.
... many civil society organisations continued to belabour the master narrative of 'the struggle' ... the overuse of the 'us-vs.-them' mentality ... casts the government in the role of constant adversary ...
Speaking the language of civil society
Government officials also have much to take from this experience. Discussing housing and human settlement policy in bureaucratic and elevated language, often accompanied by dry and convoluted PowerPoint slides, may work for fellow officials surrounding a small boardroom table. Speaking to a larger audience from a diverse array of backgrounds, however, requires a knowledge of who you're speaking with and an understanding of their perspective. Throwing out 'official lingo' above people's heads serves to make those coming from informal settlements feel even further removed from the spheres of urban governance and housing that they want to participate in.
Future roundtable discussions and larger indabas dealing with complex urban issues (see photos) need better and stronger structuring in order to come to productive and positive results. Allowing a few members of civil society to dominate discussions for 20-plus minutes at a time takes away from opportunities for productive engagement and discourages other participants from inputting their own envisaged solutions. Empowered through better organisation, government officials could then shift to a dialogue which uses words and examples that people understand and can relate to. This would do quite a lot to foster inclusion and bring a sceptical civil society audience into a productive and forward-thinking dialogue.