Maverick Citizen


Streets with no names, houses with no numbers – just another hazard for those on the fringes

Streets with no names, houses with no numbers – just another hazard for those on the fringes
MMC Eunice Mgcina watches a house number being put up in the informal settlement in Thembilihle, Lenasia. (Photo: Kabelo Mokoena)

Having a physical address can mean the difference between life and death for those who live in informal settlements. NGO Planact is helping to turn the situation around.

Nesta Sibiloane has lost count of the number of bruised and battered women she has had to patch up or hide in her home after they flee from their abusers. 

Sibiloane is a Green Door ambassador. She creates a safe haven for abused women and children to help them access psychosocial, medical and security services. 

The houses in Thembelihle informal settlement in Lenasia, Johannesburg, have no physical addresses. This makes it difficult for emergency services to locate those who are in distress, including the victims of domestic violence. 

Now, an initiative by Planact and Google Maps to create digital addresses in the suburb is set to change people’s lives. 

Eunice Mgcina digital addresses

MMC for Development Planning in the City of Johannesburg, Eunice Mgcina, said the project was the first of its kind in the city. (Photo: Kabelo Mokoena)

“Imagine it’s 2am – a woman has run away from her partner who is beating her up… she gets here severely injured. When I call the ambulance, they ask that we walk to the nearest school or a corner of the main street,” said Sibiloane. 

“They have no way to find your home and they are also scared of getting lost. I am a woman as well, so it is not safe to walk for maybe a kilometre to the school or a spot on the main road. Women end up getting re-victimised when they don’t find the necessary help… we have some brutal cases.”

Nesta Sibiloane says the initiative can make the difference between life and death. 

“Sometimes abusers don’t stay outside the gate when the ladies seek refuge… they want to come in and carry on being violent and getting the police here can make a huge difference. People shouldn’t have to risk their lives to access emergency services,” said Sibiloane. 

Planact staffer Chelsea Ndlovu-Nachamba says that beyond helping residents access services, this initiative also provides people with the dignity of having a physical address.

“Apart from being innovative, this project affords people from disadvantaged areas the dignity of simply having an address to their homes or small businesses. They are able to call for an ambulance and be located. 

“It makes a major difference in residents’ quality of life to have a street name and an address. Residents also voted on the street names before they were decided on, making this initiative truly community-led.” 

Read more in Daily Maverick: The digital divide needs to be tackled in order to combat gender-based violence

There are more than 2,500 informal settlements in Gauteng alone, and, although municipalities are constitutionally obliged to provide basic services to these areas, they do so grudgingly and usually only in response to protest action. 

In Thembelihle, 30 volunteers were trained to generate and install “Plus Codes” address boards for each of the 3,762 households.

Senior project officer Mike Makwela from Planact with MMC for Development Planning in the City of Johannesburg, Eunice Mgcina, in Thembilihle, Lenasia. (Photo: Kabelo Mokoena)

According to Google, “Plus Codes work similarly to street addresses. They can help you get and use a simple digital address. They can also help you define a specific location for a conventional address. For example, one can identify different entrances to the same building. You can use Plus Codes to identify a specific location to receive deliveries, access emergency and social services, or direct people to a location. Since the codes are simple, you can easily share them with others.”

Google Plus Codes are based on latitude and longitude. They use a simple grid system and a set of 20 alphanumeric characters. The character list purposely excludes easy-to-confuse characters like “1” or “l”. 

In early April, the MMC for Development Planning in the City of Johannesburg, Eunice Mgcina, spoke at the official launch of the 3,762 new digital addresses for Thembelihle. She noted how innovative the Plus Codes method of geolocating is, and how not having addresses has impeded service delivery. 

She commended Planact for the initiative, pledging that her office, as well as the City of Johannesburg, would assist where necessary. 

“Now residents can give an exact address to where a service needs to be delivered, not only for services such as firefighters and police, but others such as the delivery of textbooks, for instance. This will reinvigorate the economy… entrepreneurs can now receive stock deliveries and give addresses to their establishments to their clients.”

digital addresses informal settlements

Planact senior coordinator Mike Makwela said the digital address initiative was crucial for including people in informal settlements, who are often on the fringes of the city’s planning and provision of services. (Photo: Kabelo Mokoena)

Mgcina said the project is crucial as it gives visibility to those who are often forgotten or on the outskirts of the system. She asked that Planact consider collaborating to expand the project to other informal settlements. 

“This mapping can help the City to plan better and have data that can assist us to better understand the community’s needs. We cannot overemphasise that government alone can’t do this work… this collaboration with civil society and the private sector can help us do more,” said Mgcina.

According to their website, Planact was originally formed as a voluntary association of professionals in 1985. It has evolved into a non-profit organisation that focuses on work around promoting and supporting integrated human settlements, contributing to the local government transformation process, and the development and strengthening of community-based organisations.

Planact senior coordinator, Mike Makwela, said this is crucial for including communities that are often on the fringes of the city’s planning and provision of services.

“We are very excited because this is the first project in Johannesburg to deal with the challenges faced by people who live in informal settlements – the effects of not having an address are so broad,” said Makwela.

“There was a young lady who said she couldn’t write her matric without an address, so she made up something like Angel Street. People who are in wheelchairs or seriously ill are left without services because they can’t access an ambulance. Informal settlements are part of the city and the emotion behind this project shows that residents have a great need for it.”

Mondli Mabuze is a team leader who was on the ground collecting data to create the digital addresses. He says that in 2018, the community came together to decide on street names, and that was stored in the database. The Thembelihle Crisis Community and Planact then came up with an idea before involving Google Maps.

“We used an app called Address Maker to outline boundary lines per block and we’d measure the width of the road and mark every house according to categories, especially those that could be used as landmarks, like a community center or business. It took the team eight days to cover almost 4,000 households… we had so much enthusiasm to help our community and ourselves,” said Mabuze. DM/MC

Naledi Sikhakhane is a journalist researching digital surveillance, with support from the Media Policy and Democracy Project run by the University of Johannesburg’s Department of Communication and Media.


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