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Soweto: Mobilising the Community
South Africa

Keyword: Economic Development


The City of Soweto, a black city typical of those spawned in the apartheid era in South Africa, was originally developed as a temporary township, pending the turn of the urbanisation tide through influx control. Accordingly there was little reason to build an institution to manage the city, nor to invest progressively and incrementally in new infrastructures or develop a sound tax base on business and commercial development. As a result, Sowetans not only had inadequate infrastructure, but also had little access to business opportunities.

The recent upgrading programme was designed to extract from the construction work as many jobs as possible for Sowetans and has evolved into a complex of labour-based construction technology, training and supports which are designed to offer entry level jobs to the unskilled, as well as business opportunities for the entrepreneur. Work opportunities are also provided for Sowetans in the development support structures as managers, inspectors, storemen and drivers and administrators, effectively empowering the community.


The quality of life in the City of Soweto leaves much to be desired. Urban density alone directly affects the quality of life. However, the inability of the civil infrastructure to function adequately under the pressure of a population explosion further added to an overall degradation of the environment. For example, one of the most important services provided, because of its impact on health in very dense settlements, is the water supply. The original distribution system laid was mostly 2" (50mm) black iron pipe. This has been vigorously corroded in clay soils and by stray currents emanating from the railway network which serves the city. In 1987, it was estimated that the water loss in the system was somewhere between 50 to 60 percent.

At the same time, certain areas were only able to draw water from the system at night. The failure of the urban services which should support life in dense settlements, has a very real and immediate impact on the life of ordinary persons.

Areas of the city, as funds have become available, have been upgraded to improve the quality of life. For example, the construction of surfaced roads has led to a direct and visible improvement in not only the visual appearance of areas, but also in the attitudes of the inhabitants towards their environment and an appreciation of the working of the city's infrastructure.

Parallel to the physical development has been the human development of the Sowetans involved in the process and the establishment of a local viable construction industry within the city. The upgrading programme which was embarked upon has evolved from a policy of extracting as many jobs for Sowetans as possible from the construction work, into a complex of labour-based construction technology, training and supports which are designed to offer entry level jobs to the unskilled, as well as business opportunity for the entrepreneur. Hand skills are offered to the emerging contractors in the work-place and at formal classes. Work opportunities are also provided for Sowetans in the development support structure as managers, technicians, inspectors, storemen,drivers and administrators.

The programme which may be described as a Best Practice, enables construction and upgrading projects to be completed: on time, within budget, and to the required quality. The projects are also completed in a safe environment so that technical, commercial, administrative and managerial skills are transferred to the community and so that the project funds left in the community are maximized.

The City Engineer's Department, based on the lessons learnt during experimental projects undertaken during 1987, adopted a policy that:

(i) Community-based contractors should be employed to aid community development and productivity;
(ii) Professional management, supervision and training should be used to improve skills and to ensure satisfactory progress on projects; and,
(iii) Commercial skills, which are an important factor in a contractor's success, should be taught.

The City Engineer's Department, together with its consultants, identified a long-term upgrading project to initiate a contractor development programme whose objectives may be described as being to structure and to execute construction projects using labour-based technologies and labour intensive methods in such a manner that throught the construction process:

- Employment and entrepreneurial opportunities are created for members of the community;
- Skills and competencies in technical, commercial, managerial and administrative areas are transferred to participants; and,
- The percentage of construction costs retained by the community is maximised.

Thereafter, with the assistance of consultants, the reasons which prevented Sowetans from being engaged as civil engineering contractors was established, viz:
- tendering and contractual requirements, such as provision of sureties, the inclusion of penalty clauses and the tendering of rates;
- the prevalence of plant-based construction practices;
- the lack of financial resources to purchase materials, hire plant and tools and to pay wages;
- the lack of credibility in commercial circles;
- the lack of commercial, managerial and administrative skills; and,
- the lack of technical competence.

To address the above-mentioned "barriers to entry", it was recognized that construction methods had to go much further than merely substituting men for machines, as technologies had to be altered to render the construction process appropriate for manual construction methods, using relatively unskilled workers. In addition, the very construction process had to be changed to eliminate the remaining barriers to entry, facing local entrepreneurs. Technical, managerial, commercial and administrative skills had to be taught as an integral part of the process, the requirements for sureties had to waived, access to reliable sources of materials and plant had to be provided and development support furnished.

A development team comprising experienced and suitably qualified persons was appointed and constituted to act as construction facilitators who arrange to provide resources which the community contractors lack, to assist them with the administration and management of their contracts and to provide on-the-job training. In addition, the development team employs and trains members of the local community are trained to run stores facilities, monitor progress, assist with administration. In essence the development team minimises the Council's contractual risk and ensures that the project is completed to specification, on time and within budget and to appropriate engineering standards, as the community contractor, through the support provided, has the necessary skills and resources available to complete the contract.


Between 37 and 50% of the total construction cost is retained by the community.


A contractor development programme, based on the successive introduction of labour, transport, materials, plant and finance, and various degrees of development support was devised and implemented. This programme allows contractors who have no resources when entering the programme to build up their resources whilst learning tendering and contracting skills. The programme also equips those who leave the programme at any level, to operate as contractors outside of the programme.

This Best Practice, which has proven to be an effective means of economic empowerment, has been replicated in other urban areas in historically disadvantaged communities elsewhere in South Africa.


    Dick Hallet, Deputy City Engineer
    Soweto Administration
    South Africa
    27 11 9331622; Fax: 27 11 9381625


    Soweto Administration (Projects Branch)
    Mr. Dick Hallett, Deputy City Engineer
    Soweto Administration
    South Africa
    27 11 933 1622; Fax: 27 11 9381625


    Soderlund & Schutte Inc.
    Mr. Dick Hallett, Deputy City Engineer
    Soweto Administration
    South Africa

    Project Management Techniques
    Mr. Ron Watermeyer, Director
    Sotterlund and Schutte, 19 Saratoga Ave.
    Berea 2198
    South Africa
    27 11 4024072/ Fax:27 11 4041728

    Mr. Nick Band, Managing Director
    Project Management Techniques
    South Africa
    27 11 8038165/ Fax:27 11 8037126

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