It’s all about trust” said Marie Hampshire, two days into a week-long community exchange with members of the South African Alliance in July 2017, a grassroots movement of women-led savings schemes affiliated to Slum/Shack Dwellers International or SDI. Marie is a member of Mums Mart, a women’s group from Benchill in the British city of Manchester that brings low-income families together around food, monthly markets and, most recently, a new kind of savings scheme.
Each member saves small amounts with the support of their local group, and in the process of coming together the group learns about their needs and challenges and tries to respond collectively. Mums Mart was introduced to savings-based organising after meeting members of the Alliance in Manchester a year earlier. Now, other groups in the city are starting to explore how women’s savings federations could rebuild trust and solidarity in their neighbourhoods.
Joanne Inglis is the Chair of a new association called Lower Broughton Life, one of these groups that is based in another part of Greater Manchester called Salford. After accompanying members of the South African Federation of the Urban and Rural Poor (FEDUP) on door-to-door visits and listening to plans for a new housing development in Cape Town by the Informal Settlement Network (another partner in the Alliance), she urged her hosts: “when you get a front door remember to leave it open.”
Joanne was reflecting on how segregated life has become on estates like hers, where people look after their own affairs and many of the old spaces for communal life have closed down. She was struck that—while the signs of poverty and inequality in South Africa are only too visible in the townships and settlements she visited—poverty in the UK is often hidden from view: “our houses can look the same on the outside,” she said, “but it’s what’s on the inside that’s different.”
However, in other ways there are striking similarities between the dynamics of inequality and deprivation in both countries’ cities. All are dealing with sharply rising property prices which push those on lower incomes further away from the city centre, and the concentration of deprivation in particular neighbourhoods which can manifest in gang-related crime and the absence of opportunities for young people. Unequal access to decisions on how public services are delivered perpetuates the disadvantages that low-income people have to deal with on a day to day basis.
Just as importantly, the different groups were also bound together by their experiences of strength and struggle as women and mothers regardless of where they live. During their visit to the UK, the South Africans were shocked to discover homeless people living in tents in the centre of one of the richest cities in the world, which gave rise to questions about the wisdom of looking to the global North for pathways to collective well-being.
For their part, members of Mums Mart and Lower Broughton Life reflected repeatedly on people’s pride and self-organisation despite living in highly challenging circumstances in South Africa. Both gained a fresh perspective on the possibilities of organising collectively in response to poverty.
As a member of FEDUP attested (echoing Marie), “the only thing that makes a person active is when you have trust and belief.” The members of the groups also gained confidence in one another as joint travellers on a journey of discovery—watching each other learn, adapt and embrace the experience (including some fantastic ululations!). People saw that some of the South African ideas might just work in Greater Manchester, and that they might be the ones to make this happen.
The trust they gained in South Africa by staying in people’s homes, accompanying them in their work and being part of their lives (even for a short time) meant that they were comfortable enough to share their doubts and fears—and to be open to the doubts and fears of their hosts in return. As Rose Molokoane from SDI shared:
“We are still doubting ourselves saying how can we keep driving this forward…it’s too big for us…especially because we are informal but the outside world wants to see us being formal. Most of our members are not educated; you have to create enough time and enough space to educate people about what you are.”
Rose also explained the significance for the older black South African activists of sharing their homes and their organising tools with white British women after living through apartheid, and as women continuing to struggle for justice in a highly segregated society.
The exchanges seem to have come at a critical time for the British participants. Combined with rising living costs, public service cuts and welfare sanctions, low-paid work, under-employment and unemployment are fostering severe precarity in post-industrial inner-city neighbourhoods. Thirty per cent of British children (and one quarter of children in Salford) are now classified as living below the poverty line, with two thirds living in families with working parents.
Manchester looks set to become the next beacon of social cleansing after London, with luxury high rise flats and the privatisation of the city centre making it increasingly difficult for individuals and families on low-incomes to find affordable accommodation. People in low-income areas around the edges of the central business district live in constant fear of relocation as they watch rents skyrocket in the plush developments that now surround their estates.
In many of the city’s low-income neighbourhoods, social and economic changes and cuts in public sector funding mean that people don’t come together in the ways they used to through faith-, place- or work-based forms of voluntary association. Libraries, pubs and community centres have closed down, making it almost impossible in some areas for groups to find somewhere to congregate together regularly. Rising living costs and cuts in benefits are pushing people towards pay-day loans and credit-based living, leaving them drowning under the burden of debts they struggle to repay.
The surge in support for the British Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership (which is particularly visible in urban centres) suggests that increasing numbers of city-dwellers believe it is indeed, ‘time for a change.’ But how will low-income communities organize themselves and enter into movements ‘for the many and not the few’ in the years to come? That’s where networks like SDI can play an important role by inspiring new forms of mobilisation, and by linking local action into international networks for learning, advocacy and mutual support.
The savings groups they nurture are encouraged to federate, enabling them to have more influence over city and national governments in ways that are grounded in real experience. Members survey, map and profile their neighbourhoods, turning invisible challenges into concrete evidence and locally-proposed solutions. The South African Alliance, for example, has successfully advocated for a more progressive housing policy that has led to over 15,000 permanent new, affordable homes being constructed.
The SDI network used to have members in 37 countries. Thanks to a group of mums from Manchester, it may soon be 38.