Community activist

Evelyn Benekane

The walls of Evelyn Benekane’s house are built with more than bricks. The mortar that holds them together was mixed with courage, the foundations dug with determination and each room was carefully negotiated.

Benekane’s home is one of the nearly 2000 units that will eventually make up the Joe Slovo development near Port Elizabeth. Through her leadership and advocacy work she will have helped to build them all.

“I have been homeless. I have lived in a shack,” says Benekane, explaining how she came to head the grassroots Federation of the Urban and Rural Poor in the Eastern Cape, the group responsible for a process that is recognised as a model for community-led development.

“I’ve always been a leader, even when I was unemployed. My passion is to help women come together, negotiate and save, because that is how women will be able to build better homes and better lives for themselves and their children.”

The importance of a home was evident to Benekane from an early age. Her family was poor, but rather than move from East London to look for work, her father opted to remain in the home they had. This meant Evelyn had to drop out of school. But she was not discouraged. “I was inspired by the way I grew up. People helped us and that’s how we survived.” As a result, she says, “I don’t see myself, I see people that need help.”

When she moved from East London to Port Elizabeth to look for work she stayed in an informal settlement, Veeplaas, where she participated in NGO-led training programmes. She was impressed by the idea that women, in particular, need to be involved in their own development. In 1994 the people of Veeplaas began a community savings scheme.

Next, they identified land and started negotiations with the council to secure it for housing. Things stalled and, in 1996, the community decided to move on to the land, which had been vacant for more than 50 years, and negotiate later. The negotiations — with the landowner, the municipality, the department of land affairs and other stakeholders — were successful and the Joe Slovo informal settlement was estab- lished in 1997, with 1 950 housing sites.

“Today we’re still negotiating,” laughs Benekane, “but now it’s with engineers about construction and design.”

There is still a lot of work to be done, but success with Joe Slovo has shown that communities can indeed meet government half way.

“A home is an anchor: it’s the stability that can help you find a job and it can mean privacy, peace and protection from abuse. A home gives us hope,” says Benekane.