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In one U.N.-assisted project, South African women help themselves

June 12, 1997

CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) _ A brisk winter wind sweeps over the filled-in swamp. Trains rattle by a stone’s throw away, and forget about showers or indoor toilets.

Still, for the women of the Victoria Mxenge housing project, there’s no place like home.

They designed, financed and built this unassuming collection of concrete block houses 15 minutes’ drive from Cape Town. They did it with little input from men, except for some expertise and hard labor, an unusual concept in South Africa’s male-dominated townships.

It is a work in progress. Only about 40 of the eventual 148 homes are finished or under construction. Residents share one faucet and a couple of portable toilets. There’s no grass.

But to the women, it’s a thing of beauty.

``It’s so nice to live in a house instead of a shack,″ Albertina Nontobeko said Wednesday as she showed off the neat little house that she built for $2,860 and shares with seven relatives.

Offered the 7 1/2-acre plot by a church, the women came from black townships around Cape Town.

Most of them didn’t know each other, but they did know this: Here was an opportunity to escape the rambling slums of firetrap shanties and start building a life of their own.

The U.N. Development Program and the South African private aid group People’s Dialogue helped foster the program, which U.S. first lady Hillary Clinton visited on her trip to South Africa earlier this year.

But the women who live there are clearly in charge.

``When these women make decisions, they’re not interested in politics, just practicalities,″ said U.N. spokesman David Whaley. ``They’re the ones at the end of the day who take responsibility for their families.″

A group of 286 people _ 280 women and six men _ banded together to create the community. Starting in 1992, they scrimped to save what they could until they had enough to start granting members building loans.

They make their own concrete blocks, mix their own cement and set their own windows. It’s not perfect, but it’s getting better.

``Before, we were always worried about fire,″ Nontobeko said. ``The roof leaked, and the kids got sick.″

Helping out in South Africa _ with its history of centralized government and a bureaucracy that gave orders instead of seeking cooperation _ has been a learning experience for the U.N. Development Program, which has served mainly as a consultant in the project.

Most of the time, the U.N. group works more directly with governments on projects. Here, the emphasis has been more on the grass roots.

``The idea is that you continue to find ways to strengthen the community’s capacity to help itself,″ Whaley said. ``In a society that has been very regulations-oriented, we’re trying to reinvent the regulations.″

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