Guest Column

In search of lasting solutions to shack fires in Cape Town

2017-03-13 10:56

Yonela Diko

Over the weekend shack fires displaced over 4 000 people and destroyed hundreds of people's homes resulting in the loss of the lives of nine people in the Masiphumelele informal settlement in Hout Bay, Cape Town. 

This resulted in the cancellation of the Cape Town Cycle Tour that runs near the neighbourhood and the money meant for the tour being donated to the fire victims. This benevolent act is surely commendable but not sustainable. 

Despite our desire as government to eradicate shack dwellings, the fact is that the number of people living in shacks is growing.

We need to accept that people will continue to migrate to the cities in search of opportunity; that informal settlements will continue to be an important safety net for city people who cannot afford formal housing and that being able to live close to opportunity will continue to be more important for many people than living in a formal house. 

The fantasy that shacks will be eradicated leads to a failure to provide basic services to shack settlements. But the reality is that many shack settlements are up to 30 years old and could easily continue to exist for another 30 years. In many of these settlements the provision of water, toilets, refuse removal and electricity is either non-existent or wildly inadequate. The failure to provide these services further leads to all kinds of health problems and lays particular burdens on women’s time and, in the case of the absence of toilets, safety. 

One of the most acute consequences of the failure to provide services to shack settlements is the relentless fires. The ultimate solution is clearly the provision of decent housing. But that is clearly a long term goal with its own realities. 

There are all kinds of smaller interventions that could immediately reduce the threat of fire. For instance, if there were taps spread throughout the larger settlements people would be able to fight the fires more effectively. And community fire fighting efforts would clearly be much more effective if fire extinguishers were provided. 

Fires would be less likely to start and to spread if people were given fire resistant building materials. Fire engines would be better able to access the large settlements if roads were provided into the settlements. But the biggest issue is that of electricity. In settlements or parts of settlements that have been electrified, whether by the state or by residents, the incidence of fires is greatly reduced. There is a direct link between the fires and failure of most municipalities to electrify settlements.

With the winter upon us, many municipalities and welfare organisations are ready to react to fire and other disasters that will surely arise. They are ready with firefighters and water tanks to douse fires. They are ready with blankets and clothes to distribute to the affected people. 

These are crucial activities to alleviate the people’s suffering. But behind some of these reactionary approaches over many areas, there is little substance particularly when it comes to the plight of the poor. This is proved by a diverse gulf that exists between the in-depth forensic investigations that occur after domestic fires in the more affluent areas and the dismissive enquiry that results when it occurs in informal areas. 

However, until the issue of household energy safety receives the urgent attention of the highest echelons of political and economic power, sustainable solutions will not be reached.

Shack fires are a socio-economic construct. At the heart of the problem is abject poverty. People live in congested houses, built from combustible materials. Many of them are unemployed and therefore cannot afford safe energy sources and appliances. In addition, children are sometimes left alone with a flame burning in the home. Any solution must urgently address these deep seated issues.

Provincial government and the City of Cape Town must address the housing issues. They must recognise and implement a comprehensive household energy safety policy throughout all the municipalities. The policy should include consumer education on safe energy usage.

Almost invariably the DA government responds to shack fires by blaming the victims. We are told that the fires are the fault of a parent who wasn’t watching a child carefully enough or someone who was drunk and so on. 

These stories are often simply fabricated. But even when they are true the point is that when people have services provided, primarily electricity, an exuberant child, a drunk adult or someone who has grown tired at a funeral vigil might knock over a lamp but the result will be trivial – perhaps a broken bulb. 

In a shack that is lit by a candle and where people are warmed by a brazier and their food cooked on a paraffin stove, a tiny slip in concentration can quite easily result in catastrophe. 

For this reason the solution to shack fires is not, as the DA government would tell us, to train people in fire awareness. The solution is to electrify the settlements. People cannot be expected to live in constant fear of fire until they get houses. Many people now living in shacks will end their days there. Providing them with essential and decent services is a moral obligation.

- Yonela Diko is an ANC spokesperson in the Western Cape.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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