Review: the Victoria Mxenge Housing Project

Author(s) Salma Ismail
Publisher UCT Press
Year 2015

This book is about the role the Victoria Mxenge Housing Project (VM), a group of resilient poor women living in shacks on Cape Town’s outskirts who got tired of waiting for the government to build them houses and decided to do it themselves, played in the historical development of South Africa; what drove them and how they achieved their goal of improving their lives. It is essentially a historical account of how the post-Apartheid state has ignored the efforts of ordinary South Africans, rather than learn from them. This account is given in Chapter 1.

Although Chapter 2 claims to present a theoretical foundation for the book by contrasting and comparing Freire and Gramsci’s ideas on adult education, this does not come out clearly. For instance, it is not clear how the author comes to a conclusion that the VM women were “organic intellectuals who progressed from ‘common sense’ to ‘good sense’ (p.12). What is the relationship between the VM women and the People’s Dialogue (PD) non-governmental organisation? The theoretical discussion does not come out clearly here.

In fact, taking Chapters 2 and 3 together, Ismail shows that the women themselves took the initiatives without an external influence of the NGO, People’s Dialogue (PD). In these two chapters a historical account is given of how the women were able to organise and agitate for their needs over time, even though the odds were often stacked against them. The resilience of the women of VM is discussed well in these two chapters. Most importantly, women’s voices and their experiences are captured very well here. It is useful that Ismail was able to show that political influence was not a major aim for the women. They were all unified by their poverty and vulnerability. For them bread and butter issues were paramount. They learned how to save; how to carry out basic community research; how to access government funding for their project and were responsible for designing and building their own houses. They did all of the above with the support of NGOs such as Peoples Dialogue.

In Chapter 4 Ismail shows how the VM project began to show signs of growth and empowerment in that the group began to organise other women in similar circumstances to show that they too could better their circumstances. This happened, according to Ismail, at a very important and critical moment in South Africa’s history. A new macro-economic framework (GEAR) had just been adopted in South Africa and the RDP – a people driven programme – was relegated to the background.

Chapter 5 is an account of how the VM evolved into an organisation that worked with the state and how this relationship led to the demise of the VM and its alliance partners such as the PD. This is illustrative in that it supports the literature that highlights how the NGO sector was depleted of effective leadership as activists clamoured for positions in government; how the VM and partners were co-opted and their ideas, which they had implemented successfully over time, were relegated to the background. This relationship is not clearly articulated and highlighted in the chapter. For me this is disappointing. Ismail could have stressed the importance of learning from the poorest of the poor and how government missed this opportunity of adopting this project and using it as a ‘demonstration project’, if I may borrow from Rondinelli (1983).

Chapter 6 discusses further the changed roles of the VM and its partners. Ismail highlights key insights and contradictions in various contexts. The prevailing power dynamics in the institutional context are highlighted in this chapter. I agree with Ismail that popular education can indeed drive social change as illustrated by the VM case study. In the conclusion Ismail summarises all the important points made in the book and the highlight for me is the historical account of the VM women and how their voices and experiences are captured in the book.

Notwithstanding my comments above, Ismail has done a good job of capturing the voices and experiences of the poorest of the poor, through the VM project. The book is a welcome addition to the literature on social activism and popular education. It will appeal to those who are more concerned with real life conditions of poor women in the global South.


Dr MJ Rakolojane is a senior lecturer in Development Studies at the University of South Africa (UNISA).

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