Stellenbosch has become the South African pioneer of a new style of community development; a technological hothouse and African trendsetter with the introduction of free Wi-Fi, and a partnership with one of the world’s wealthiest entrepreneurs that is set to be rolled out to the rest of the country.
It is hardly surprising then that when 102 South African municipalities were evaluated in 2012, Stellenbosch was the second-best and one of two to achieve an astounding 85 out of 100 in the Municipal Financial Stability Index.
One of Stellenbosch’s pioneer products is the iShack system, an innovative approach developed by postgraduate Stellenbosch University (SU) students. Its purpose is to make simple yet significant improvements to the living conditions of residents of informal settlements.
It is going to be scaled up with a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, says Desmond Thompson, senior writer in the department of institutional advancement at Stellenbosch University.
The grant will cover a two-year pilot project in Enkanini, Stellenbosch. The eventual aim is to roll out the system to the rest of the country and beyond.
Between 40 and 100 shacks will be built or retrofitted with a basic solar energy system and insulated with used Tetra Pak containers and cardboard boxes to protect residents from extreme temperatures.
The iShack system is the result of a combined research project by Stellenbosch Universities’ TsamaHub and the Sustainability Institute (SI) at Lynedoch outside Stellenbosch, in collaboration with the Stellenbosch municipality.
The “i” in iShack stands for “improved”, and it entails cost-effective and sustainable modifications to the basic corrugated iron shack commonly found in developing countries around the world.
“The problem with the existing policy of in-situ upgrading is that people wait a long time for the energy and water grids to arrive, and thereafter for housing to be constructed,” says Mark Swilling, coordinator of the sustainable development program at Stellenbosch University’s school of public leadership.
“Research shows that this can take eight years. What happens in the meantime? Do shack dwellers just wait, or are there things that can be done immediately? The iShack project is about demonstrating what organized communities can achieve in a short space of time.”
Where possible, shacks are reoriented to face north and will be provided with a roof overhang for maximum heat from the sun in winter and cool shade in summer.
Inside the shack, a clay wall along one of the sides provides thermal mass for passive temperature control.
“These strategies are not alternatives to conventional approaches. All improvements are compatible with the conventional energy and water grids if and when they arrive,” says Swilling.
“Given that all the technologies are mature and proven, the real learning during the pilot phase will be determining what social, institutional and financial arrangements would be required to make the system viable in the long run,” he says.
Pieter Venter, head of Stellenbosch municipality’s financial portfolio, says such is the housing backlog nationally that some residents would have to wait 107 years for a new home.
Therefore ingenious ways of upgrading informal settlements and households, like iShack and the remarkable Langrug-initiative, could become a blueprint for residential development in the whole of South Africa.
In Langrug, an informal settlement of 4,088 residents near Franschhoek, a partnership between the University of Cape Town (UCT), the Community Organisation Resource Centre (CORC), Shack Dwellers International (SDI) and the Stellenbosch Municipality is coming to fruition.
“We believe community-centered and driven development—in partnership with local municipalities, other non-governmental organizations and stakeholders—is the best approach to upgrade informal settlements,” says Aditya Kumar, Community Organisation Resource Centre technical coordinator and a Langrug project manager.
CORC piloted its unique approach in Langrug, where strong community leadership has emerged.
“The Langrug residents have generated their own developmental agenda that has shifted the community mind-set from ‘free state-subsidized housing’ to ‘community-led settlement upgrading’,” says Kumar.
Community members conducted extensive research to determine their main concerns and probe for possible solutions, says community chairperson Trevor Masiy.
“We’ve come up with solutions and now we’re taking them to the [Stellenbosch] municipality,” he says.
Some solutions have already been implemented.
“They have opened access streets, relocated several families that block access to the settlement, built grey water channels, provided play parks for children, painted ablution facilities and set up health forums to assist with HIV/Aids counseling,” Kumar says in commentary published on the skillsportal website.
Helen Zille, premier of the Western Cape in South Africa, recently visited Langrug and enthused about the viable partnership between authorities and the community.
“The exciting thing about this project is that we are upgrading shacks where they are instead of moving people out and starting from the beginning,” she says.
Stellenbosch is arguably the first municipality in South Africa and Africa that offered accessible and free wireless connectivity to local residents.
According to the World Bank, a 10% increase in high-speed internet connections results in economic growth of around 1.3%. In other words, networked technology is crucial to a developing economy like South Africa because the statistics predict good economic returns on any investment made in the web.
Stellenbosch municipality partnered with the former chief executive officer of Mxit, Alan Knott-Craig, to initiate the project. Mxit agreed to donate not only their excess bandwidth to the initiative but also infrastructure support and technical know-how.
“Although free wi-fi can never compete in performance with paid-for services, it does provide a magnet for creativity and engineers,” says Knott-Craig.
Venter says they planned to give everybody in the community a cap of 500 megabytes a day. The next phase was to extend the network to the greater Stellenbosch area over six months, and thereafter target Franschhoek and Pniel.
Free connectivity and business partnerships might assist Stellenbosch in becoming Africa’s technology capital, and also enhance its reputation as one of the favorite tourist destinations in the country.
According to Annemarie Ferns, CEO of Stellenbosch 360, the Stellenbosch Tourism and Information Authority (STI), together with key role players, launched a new, holistic destination brand in 2011.
Appropriately named Stellenbosch 360, this ground-breaking initiative created the opportunity for not only tourism but business and other stakeholders to join hands and build a better future together.
The strategic goal for an inclusive tourism plan for Stellenbosch was to enhance and uphold the national and international reputation of Stellenbosch and also to market the town to local and international visitors.
The tourism budget of R1.8 million ($202,000) in Stellenbosch was minute compared to Cape Town with R36 million ($4 million) and Knysna with R4.5 million ($505,000). Without an integrated and strategic plan there could be only limited success.
The new buzz word in Stellenbosch, which has enhanced its economic growth and has contributed to its national standing as one of South Africa’s finest municipalities is “partnerships”.
For example, Ferns says Stellenbosch 360 wants to promote cultural tourism by finding community entrepreneurs that will provide tourists with authentic cultural local experiences.
Stellenbosch endeavors to bring these entrepreneurs into the mainstream of tourism and pair them with established tourism enterprises in and around the Stellenbosch towns.
Venter said Stellenbosch 360 is an excellent example of inclusive cooperation in the Western Cape focusing on growing the economy and creating job opportunities.