‘A future in which all people in South Africa live in a participatory democracy with sustainable living environments and livelihood security’: such is the vision of the Built Environment Support Group (BESG), which celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2013. Its origins lie in the University of Natal (Durban) in that remarkable upwelling of radical social engagement that characterised parts of academia in the 1980s. BESG brought intellectual and practical resources to bear on the malign impact of colonialism and apartheid on black lives in urban environments and asked how this should be rectified in a future democratic society.

Ideological apartheid was partially driven by African urbanisation, which was pulled by the needs of a modernising economy and pushed by rural poverty. By the 1980s towns were increasingly surrounded by sprawling informal settlements. An early BESG involvement was at St Wendolin’s (near Pinetown), a settlement threatened by forced removal. Its intention was to defend people’s rights and uplift their community through advice and skills transfer that would support development. Particular emphasis was placed on working with democratic organisations, promoting appropriate materials and technology. BESG saw beyond housing as a technical issue and addressed its socio-political dimensions. Its first employee in August 1986 was Protas Madlala, now a prominent political commentator; while another was ex-Robben Island prisoner Sbu Ndebele, the current Minister of Correctional Services.

Defence of the Happy Valley settlement near Claridge in 1989−1990 was an early campaign in Pietermaritzburg. It was eventually in 1995 to become the first in situ upgrade project of the National Housing Subsidy Scheme. In Durban there was the site and service project at Piesangs River and the Pietermaritzburg Low Income Settlement Task Team was to follow. A consistent sub-text was mistrust of officialdom by communities who turned to BESG for assistance. In the case of Glenwood 2, a development of 1 500 households in the mid-1990s that was Pietermaritzburg’s largest housing development, Cameron Brisbane, project manager and now BESG’s executive director, recalls spending nine years ‘unblocking bureaucratic obstacles and navigating issues of contention’ that largely involved ambiguous authority and turf wars within Msunduzi Municipality. A consistent theme in BESG’s history in both the old and new South Africa has been struggle against bureaucratic obstruction of community aspirations.

BESG flourished in the mid to late 1990s within the Urban Sector Network and with European Union funding. The Pietermaritzburg Northern Areas Housing Support Centre with plans, construction advice and materials supply helped to maximise the value of the residual subsidy once the bulk had been spent on infrastructure. A lack of norms and standards had led to questionable, expensive provision such as water-borne sewerage systems for communities that were unlikely to pay rates. The Ubunye Co-operative Housing Project provided short-term accommodation; while the Community Based Maintenance Programme involved street cleaning, grass cutting and road maintenance, a form of alternative municipal service delivery for 4 600 households. This was lauded as a pioneer model with national potential having shown that neighbourhood quality control produced beneficial results. However, it was opposed by the municipal waste management department, which ironically favoured tendering to the private sector over community-based enterprise. Yet the profit motive failed to provide sustainability and service delivery collapsed.

BESG had already encountered government hostility as a result of its criticisms of the shortcomings of Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) housing, originally targeted at one million units in five years. Research showed them to be poorly designed and built with insufficient oversight, deficiencies highlighted by the media. At the turn of the century new legislation bestowed on local government a development role for which it was ill-equipped. BESG depicts the outcome as a regulatory environment that has frustrated community initiative and prejudiced the role of non-governmental organisations (NGOs). New procurement procedures shifted the advantage to profit-driven contractors. Thus, as BESG puts it, ‘the state calls the shots and the community is marginalised’. Communities ceased to be partners in development, becoming simply another risk factor and creating further distance between them and government.

Over time BESG has placed housing within an ever-broadening context of sustainability including food gardens, stokvels and the special needs of orphaned children. Its Livelihood and Tenure Security Programme involves tenure issues, nutrition, water, soil erosion and health and safety; and participatory learning. Recent projects have included co-operative based school feeding schemes in Ladysmith; and Greener Pastures, which is concerned with climate change. The need for a holistic approach to the built environment is clear as is the danger of BESG spreading itself too thinly. But as Brian Bassett, chairperson of its board asks, ‘who else engages in this way?’

Like many NGOs, BESG has experienced its own managerial and financial crises. Since 2005 its headquarters have been based in Pietermaritzburg. In anticipation of the loss of foreign funding, BESG Development Services was set up as a dedicated trading entity able to generate income and protect its intellectual property such as training material. The Catholic funding agency Misereor continues to support BESG.

It sees the most important attributes of communities as self-reliance and robust, active citizenship that encourage initiative over despair or a handout mentality. In significant ways the antithesis of this credo is the R2.1 billion Vulindlela rural housing contract for 25 000 houses awarded to one private sector implementation agent (Dezzo) fronted by a development association dominated by amakhosi (chiefs) of Msunduzi wards 1−9. Dezzo’s contract is 50 times the size generally determined by policy. Amongst other irregularities and illegalities there was no tender process, environmental assessment or meaningful community consultation. BESG was forced to pull its staff out of the area after it criticised the project.

Obvious allies would appear to be social movement organisations and there has been engagement with the Federation of the Urban Poor, especially in the area of training. But bodies like Abahlali baseMjondolo, politically highly charged, have problems with the fact that BESG has a working relationship with government.

Bassett sums up the primary interest of BESG as ‘helping to develop communities that work.’ It has shown over 30 years that private, profit-driven service providers deliver less than community-based projects assisted by NGOs and then walk away when income dwindles. It has highlighted the fact that municipalities do not have the skills to drive complex housing projects successfully and that corruption, waste and dissatisfaction often result. Frequently, the methods of officialdom fail to serve the poor and, as Brisbane puts it, BESG goes ‘banging on doors’ waking up bureaucrats in the interests of implementation. Politicians focus on quantity while BESG is equally concerned about quality and sustainability in communities that cannot afford expensive maintenance. Brisbane adds that ‘although a small organisation, BESG has made a huge impact’ and earned a respect that has resulted in a long history of influential representation on national bodies.

BESG’s ongoing mission is based on a pro-poor agenda designed to access and develop ‘land, basic services, shelter and livelihood security through the provision of capacity building, and social and technical support’ while promoting ‘citizen engagement with government.’ It sees its future as working with, not for, poor communities, empowering them to understand their rights as citizens in a democracy and to be part of solutions. Through participation, communities will identify and lobby for their own development agendas and hold councillors to account. Bassett firmly believes that creating stable, sustainable communities will help to nurture a new generation of leaders.

Much has changed in 30 years, but the academic founders of BESG would find this a familiar part of their vision. As Bassett comments, ‘We often ask ourselves what they would have done’.

This article was first published in The Witness on 20 December 2013 and entitled ‘Working with the people’.