Mark Swilling, community activist and policy advisor, is building asouthern African people-centered urban development movement to strengthen groups serving the urban poor and to transform the institutional, planning, and urban government mechanisms of southern African cities.
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Cities are playing an increasingly vital role in the political transitions throughout southern Africa. The mass influx of people to the cities has released a new potential to negotiate development strategy and political democracy across new and more regional alliances of people and communities organized in people-centered development movements. It also tends powerfully to undercut, in Mark's view, the power of the nation state. To facilitate these new alliances, Mark is building a regional network of intermediary, independent service agencies capable of providing technical and policy advice to urban community-based organizations (CBOs). The network will act as a conduit for financial assistance and for appropriate and accessible expertise. Based upon his experiences with the civic movement in South Africa, Mark believes that people-centered development can only work when organized communities have an independent resource base, the capacity to mobilize and organize people, and the ability to negotiate. The network will equip the urban poor with the necessary knowledge and relevant technical expertise to empower urban groups to represent, articulate, and negotiate their needsand interests effectively to governments and other outside forces.
A southern African people-centered urban development movement will facilitate a civil society-based alliance of southern African cities that may have far-reaching implications for the future of the subcontinent. This movement needs both to develop the capacity to deliver concrete services to the urban poor and also to transform many of the institutional, planning, and macro-economic structures and systems of the southern African city.
The entire subcontinent is plagued by various problems including massive poverty, societal destruction and dislocation, mass migrations,endemic violence and the systematic marginalization of an entire generation of people both inside and outside South Africa. Movement towards regional integration will make it much easier for people-centered movements to support each other, and to influence decision-making processes and policy. Transport and trade already are integrating the region, as does a weak customs union. Although integration could potentially generate enormous social and economic benefits, the vested interests of political elites in the various nation-states are actively constraining such efforts. Mark feels that the cities could well become the critical source of energy, powerful because it is people-based, pressing towards people-centered regional integration. The cities power would derive precisely from their broad-based, increasingly aware and organized popular base. If a people-centered vision of the South African city is to be developed, CBOs and people's movements must be able to represent and articulate effectively the interests of the urban poor. Each country is very different in this regard. Certain regions in South Africa have well developed CBOs and grassroots movements that are actively engaged in representing their constituencies, delivering services and transforming their towns and cities. However, post colonial development strategies in Zimbabwe and Mozambique, together with war, have succeeded in demobilizing the urban poor. Key figures in grassroots movements within these countries recognize the urgent demands facing them, but they are cut off from the technical and professional skills they require. These skills are tightly controlled by or within the financial reach of those with political power and/or financial resources.
Mark is setting out to create a network of researchers, technical experts, and policy advisors who work directly for urban communities.They will be drawn from both independent organizations that provide services to CBOs as well as from CBOs that have the necessary capacity and expertise. The network does not aim to actually establish either the service organizations or the CBOs, but rather to build a regional community of individuals who share this vision. Mark played a principal role in establishing a network of service organizations within South Africa. This network plays a key role in helping urban movements negotiate their demands with the existing government, and in equipping community based leaders with the skills they will require as future leaders in the country's development. Over the past ten years, approximately 2,000 civic associations country-wide have mobilized actively against the urban systems and local government arrangements in their towns and cities. Mark has responded byorganizing professionals into service agencies capable of providing the civic associations with technical and policy advice. This greatly strengthened these movements and helped them to articulate their vision of the future of the South African town and city. Requests for this kind of service are now coming from cities in South Africa's neighboring countries.
Mark's work begins by identifying small groups of key development workers in each Southern African country. Ideally, these people will be drawn broadly from the state, citizens' organizations, CBOs, and the private sector. The network will organize discussions and other mechanisms to help the CBOs in the region to share their experiences and to develop a common understanding of the key development problems ineach country and in the region.
In addition, the network will provide help with and training inorganizational skills, strategic planning, communications, policy formulation and planning, project management and negotiation skills. It will also offer technical assistance in the areas of engineering services, roads, transportation, housing, development finance, land, development institutions, law, and various facets of local government (structures, finance, administration, and planning). The staff will develop high levels of technical skill and also the ability to help the communities develop and communicate a radically different conception of how to organize the development process. Both ingredients are intended to facilitate, spur, and catalyze grassroots organization and empowerment.
Over time, the groups in each city will be linked together through an email system that will facilitate the rapid transmission of documentation and information. By the end of twelve months, a functioning regonal network will begin to field proposals for the establishment of subregional service organizations.
Mark was educated at the Waldorf School (postulated on the philosophyof Rudolf Steiner) and at a private school that encouraged creative, unstructured learning. He completed a Bachelor of Arts Honors Degree in Political Science at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, and is currently finishing his PhD dissertation on socialmovements. As an activist in the anti-apartheid struggle, Mark concluded that transformation will only be possible if the urban poor have access tothe kind of technical skills and expertise that the state and business can access. With others, Mark founded PLANACT to provide this service.However, he remained based in the University as a lecturer and then as a full-time policy researcher. He re-joined PLANACT full-time in 1990. Mark has helped to establish many civic initiatives, including the Metropolitan Chamber that is negotiating an entirely new urban system for the greater Johannesburg metropolitan area; the School of Public and Development Management at the Faculty of Management at the University of the Witwatersrand to train post-apartheid civil servants; the National People's Bank, a federation of community banks; various service organizations in South African cities; and the initiation of what may become a national training program to build the capacity of the local civic associations.