Venilla Yoganathan

They live on the pavements and in shanty towns and have no regular income or skills training, but these groups of homeless people across South Africa managed to save about R3-million and build more than 5 000 low-cost houses for themselves.

Comprising largely of women, they represent more than 50 000 families across the country who are part of an innovative savings scheme to help the homeless out of their plight.

Their attitude is summed up in the words of Patrick Magebhula, from the People's Dialogue on Land and Shelter: "We have to accept that democracy does not come with hand-outs."

This week, representatives of South Africa's homeless will meet their counterparts from urban informal settlements as far afield as India and Thailand at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Durban.

Their mission, through the newly formed international network Shack Dwellers International, is to exchange ideas for self-improvement.

The savings scheme, for example, was a project built on from similar schemes that operated among the homeless of India and Thailand, said Magebhula.

Collectively known as the South African Homeless People's Federation, the project consists of 1 200 housing savings schemes whose membership is drawn from the homeless communities in South Africa.

The majority of the members do not have formal employment and rely on pensions, washing and informal gardening for income.

But together they have saved about R3-million, one million rands of which is circulated in communities in the form of small loans to generate more income.

Through this scheme they have managed to build themselves decent 56 square metre houses - almost twice the size built by those who rely solely on state subsidies.

Magebhula said that despite popular belief, South Africa's homeless - the majority of whom live in KwaZulu-Natal - did not list a house as a priority.

Among the estimated eight million people living in informal dwellings in the country basics like water, healthcare and electricity were top of their priorities.

To this end, he said, Shack Dwellers International was not a network concerned only with providing houses but hoped, through the delivery of low-cost units, to uplift the homeless in other spheres as well.

In Zimbabwe, a member of the network - the Zimbabwean Homeless People's Federation - trained women in basic construction and technical skills to build their own homes.

But, as in South Africa, access to land remained the biggest problem facing poor communities throughout the world.