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Spotlight on Isandla Institute

In 2008, Isandla Institute celebrates its 10th anniversary. In the past ten years, Isandla Institute has rapidly established itself as a leading policy organisation in the field of local government and urban development.

Isandla Institute’s purpose is to help foster just, equitable and democratic urban settlements. The core development challenge Isandla Institute aims to address relates to urban poverty and socio-economic marginalisation resulting from systemic inequality, racism and undeveloped democratic citizenship. Since the advent of democracy, these problems have clearly not been resolved. In fact, evidence suggests that post-1994 urban planning interventions tend to perpetuate and reinforce the adverse urban realities that resulted from apartheid planning.

To realise the vision of just, equitable and democratic urban settlements, there is firstly a need to better understand the underlying causes of poverty, inequality and social implosion in particularly poor communities. This requires coming to grips with a complex interplay of factors at macro, meso and micro levels. Secondly, there is a need to strengthen the institutional capability of organisations that are central to the realisation of the vision of just, equitable and democratic urban settlements. The notion of the developmental state is very appealing in this regard, yet in reality this concept is ill-defined and there is no consensus on the broad principles or the strategic approaches, strategic thrusts, methodologies and mechanisms to give practical meaning to the term. Without appropriate intellectual tools, there is no clear direction as to how the state and its resources can be best marshalled to effect social transformation, to eradicate poverty and inequality, to sustain ‘shared growth’ and to sustain democracy. At the institutional level, there is clearly a need for effective instruments and tools that facilitate the realisation of intended developmental outcomes. Isandla Institute sees its role as helping to strengthen the capabilities of the developmental (local) state in this regard.

Isandla Institute views itself as a public interest think tank, one that generates ideas on the basis of research and an understanding of the context (i.e. knowledge-based). It also recognises the importance of the practical application of knowledge, ideas and policy ideals, experimentation and the development of appropriate methodologies, processes, tools and instruments, particularly for development professionals (especially those working in the public sector). On the basis of the generation of ideas and the application of knowledge/ideas/policy ideals, the organisation engages in two activities/processes: on the one hand, it engages in the facilitation of engagement between stakeholders. Isandla Institute sees its role as ‘holding the space’, where meaningful reflection, debate and engagement can happen. On the other hand, the organisation engages in advocacy and agenda setting. Of course, all these processes are inter-connected and mutually reinforcing.

Isandla Institute currently engages in four programmatic areas of work:
1. Access to affordable, well-located and well-connected land for the urban poor
2. HIV/AIDS in the City, with a specific focus on sustainable human settlements
3. Culture and social inclusion
4. Developmental local government

Recent highlights of Isandla Institute’s work include:
The publication of the edited volume on the state of local government, titled Consolidating Developmental Local Government: Lessons from the South African Experience;
The coordination of the inaugural Governance Summer School (GSS) for senior municipal representatives from the Western, Eastern and Northern Cape;
A study on how the poor access, use and trade urban land in different settlement types in eThekwini, Ekhuruleni and Cape Town (conducted for Urban LandMark);
Ongoing research and advocacy on HIV/AIDS and sustainable human settlements, which combines a development and institutional perspective on HIV/AIDS with an explicit spatial perspective. So far, this has culminated in a Concept Paper and Guide for Municipal Practioners on the topic, as well as a poster and a documentary.

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