Cape Town Together, a network of self-organising neighbourhood-level groups known as Community Action Networks (CANs), emerged in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Researchers from the Health Policy and Systems Division began working with a team of community organisers, social activists and public health practitioners who sought to catalyse a community-led response to Covid-19, and its socio-economic impacts. From sharing information and resources, to setting up community kitchens, the network became an important part of the overall societal response.
The Covid-19 pandemic is a public health crisis with devastating socio-economic consequences. As such, while a decisive public health response is necessary, it is, on its own, insufficient to meeting the emergent needs of communities. In early March, it was clear from the way the pandemic was unfolding across the globe that formal national and provincial response programmes would likely struggle to keep up with the pace of the virus. This suggested that a model of bottom-up community organizing that could spread faster than the virus would be important in to rapidly identifying and responding to emerging health, social and economic crises.
Recognizing this, before the state of disaster and the lockdown were announced, researchers from the Health Policy and Systems Division began working with a team of community organizers, social activists and public health practitioners who sought to catalyse a community-led response to Covid-19, and its socio-economic impacts. Within a few days, hundreds of people had joined self-organising neighborhood-level groups known as Community Action Networks or CANs. By the time the State of Disaster was declared and lockdown was announced, thousands of people had started figuring out how to respond based on the hyper-local realities in their own neighborhoods. As part of the broader movement, the CANs were also able to draw on the collective energy and collective wisdom of the network as a whole, and to support one another across the social, economic and geographic divides of the Cape Town. As the network gained momentum, many University of Cape Town (UCT) students and staff got involved in their local CAN or volunteered their time in support of cross-network initiatives.
“Within a few weeks the network consisted of 170 neighborhood-based CANs across the province from Nyanga to Nooordhoek, from Hanover Park to Samora Machel, from Lavender Hill to Constantia.”
Within a few weeks the network consisted of 170 neighborhood-based CANs across the province from Nyanga to Nooordhoek, from Hanover Park to Samora Machel, from Lavender Hill to Constantia. Soon, CANs in the network started to form partnerships to share ideas and resources between CANs like the Gugulethu-Seaboard partnership or the Bonteheuwel-Rondebosh partnership that later became known as the Bontebosch CAN. Issue-focused organizing nodes emerged that bring together organisers from multiple CANs to focus on cross-CAN challenges. For example, the Health CAN worked to develop neighbourhood models of care along with doctors from the public and private sector and a range of public health professionals. These collaborations allow for radical acts of social solidarity, demonstrate the power of collective action and are a necessary precursor to building a more just society as we recover from the pandemic. Organizing across race and class in a city as divided as Cape Town remains an obstacle in all community mobilizations, and the explicit goal of the Cape Town Together movement was to build a response that could help to transform the unjust economic, social and environmental challenges in our city.
“Cape Town Together is, at its core, a web of human relationships. Drawing in, and building on existing connections, it brought about a culture of working beyond mandates and across organizations to support one another and strengthen society-wide responses.”
While the CANs themselves are the driving force of the movement, linking the CANs through platforms for information sharing and collaboration spurs cross-network action and supports cross-network learning. Access to water was the first issue that required a network-wide mobilization effort. While the official guidance included frequent hand washing as a key COVID-19 prevention tool, it was clear that many residents of informal housing did not have easy access to clean water. A successful advocacy campaign led by the Khayelitsha CAN, with the support of CANs across the city and formal civil society organisations, resulted in the City distributing and filling water tanks in some informal parts of Khayelitsha, Kensington and Factreton. When it was announced that we all needed to be wearing masks, CANs quickly jumped into action and started sewing and donating masks to other CANs. Another big focus was addressing food insecurity. In the absence of a state-led social safety net CANs found ways to safely distribute food parcels to those in need. When it was clear that parcels would not go far enough, CANs set up and supported thousands of community kitchens across the city and are currently working towards more sustainable food systems through the establishment of community food gardens. We also saw CANs developing creative alternatives to providing care and the Ocean View CAN set up a ‘home away from home’ or Community Care Centre for folks with Covid-19 who were unable to self-isolate at home, for example.
The flexible, adaptive structure of the network enabled rapid responses to multiple and shifting needs. Researchers and community organizers quickly pulled together a starter pack that had the critical information needed regarding the first steps to organizing safely in the time of COVID-19. In addition, a team of scientists and public health professionals established a Fact-Checking CAN to counter uncertainty, fear, stigma and disinformation. The Fact-Checking CAN, along with the Design CAN, also developed and designed, easy-to-understand posters that could be shared in hard-copy or electronically. The guidance responded to emerging needs in the network – for example when community kitchens were being established by many CANs, the Fact-Checking and Design CANs focused on Covid-safety tips that made sense within the realities of out-door community kitchens with limited resources. The Provincial Heath Department soon began to use CAN-produced content as inputs to the official health messages in a wonderful show of openness to collaboration with community-based actors.
Building on years of collaboration with the Western Cape Department of Health, the CANs were also able to actively engage with, and support, the Provincial response. In addition to a series of co-learning sessions held with senior managers in the system, CANs assisted contact tracing pods in some instances, and a number of public servants who were also part of their local CAN allowed for multiple positive engagements that helped to shape the formal health system response. The community level intelligence that was generated by the ‘Professors of the Street’ in the CANs became part of the range of evidence the Department of Health drew on bringing some important community-level perspectives into policy and strategy conversations.
Cape Town Together is, at its core, a web of human relationships. Drawing in, and building on existing connections, it brought about a culture of working beyond mandates and across organizations to support one another and strengthen society-wide responses. The CANs have powerfully demonstrated the value of public participation in health, and in particular the power of informal networks and collective action in community health systems in times of unprecedented crisis. While many in the network are yet to meet in person, many positive stories will never be known and what grows out of these connections remains to be seen.
Acknowledgements: Anastasia Koch: Molecular Mycobacteriology Research Unit, Division of Medical Microbiology and Department of Pathology and Olivia Carulei: Viral Vaccine Development Group and Human Papillomavirus Research Group, Division of Medical Virology, Department of Pathology.
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