Category Archives: Khayelitsha

GroundUp: Bank drives woman to brink of homelessness

Bank drives woman to brink of homelessness

By Jared Sacks, GroundUp

Kutala Mtyali's sits on the couch of her house, perhaps for the last day, and tries to piece together the ongoing saga of her 26 year struggle to keep her home. Family members help her with names and dates. She is on the brink of homelessness.

While the details of this story are unique, evictions of the poor and lower middle class have become a national crisis – one that tends to favour what housing activists perceive to be the greedy and often-times illegal lending practices of South Africa's banks.

This story is not simple. Its spans more than three decades starting out in a tiny shack in Crossroads from which she was eventually forcibly removed. In 1987, she built her home in A Section, Khayelitsha, after receiving permission, by the City of Cape Town, to settle on the serviced site ERF 105. She received a letter giving her the rights through a 99 year lease, to live and build on the property. Today, a trespassing charge could, if a magistrate gets his way, result in her eviction once again.

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GroundUp: Continued existence of shacks is a real scandal

Continued existence of shacks is a real scandal

by Benjamin Fogel

Yet another shack fire has devastated the BM section of Khayelitsha. On New Years morning fires raged through the community, leaving about 4,000 people homeless and killing at least four. The responses from authorities to what has now become a routine occurrence in the area have been mixed.

The response time of fire fighters was reportedly around two hours, despite the fire station being only a kilometer away. One City of Cape Town official Richard Bosman blamed the slow response time on the apparent obstruction of the routes to BM section caused by “resident’s belongings”. What that means in a community still lacking paved roads and desperately in need of “upgrading”, I do not know.

But the real scandal is the existence of shacks. Shack fires are just a symptom of a wider injustice. Shacks have come to be accepted as normal, a permanent existence, yet municipalities continue to insist they are merely temporary. The houses will be built but the settlements cannot be upgraded, as shacks are not permanent structures.

Shacks then occupy a zone of legal flux. If residents attempt to upgrade their dwellings into permanent structures they risk incurring the wrath of municipal demolition teams. Shack-dwellers occupy a curious position between rights bearing citizens and criminality, in which their very housing exists beyond the law.

This is the location of some of the most marginalised people in our society: sprawling shantytowns devoid of basic services-from water to roads to electricity. Despite the oft-repeated assurances of future upgrades from both major political parties, across the country’s mega-townships such as Khayelitsha in Cape Town, most of these upgrades have yet to appear.

In these high-density settlements often lacking electricity, residents are forced to use paraffin lamps for light or gas stoves in order to cook. It is in these circumstances where a misstep can lead to an inferno or falling asleep can destroy a community. As the lamp falls over and the shack is consumed by flames in a matter of minutes, the neighbouring shacks join soon afterwards.

It’s not only damage to property and bodies done by the fire. A psychological toll is left too, as people see the communities disappear in a matter of hours and are forced to rebuild their lives on a regular basis. The physical trauma can be repaired, but can the psychological?

It’s surely obvious that the fortress suburbs that occupy the more privileged sections of our cities, don’t face the same risk from fire. They have electricity,bricks and concrete and space. Not to mention the likely faster response time of emergency services.

Mike Davis writing in a seminal essay titled “Planet of Slums”, which would later become a book, noted that somewhere in one of the emerging mega-cities of the developing world, Jakarta, Lagos, Mumbai or Johannesburg a child would be born, which mark the first time majority of the world’s population lived in urban areas.

Over the last few decades the rapid urbanisation present in South Africa, has been even surpassed by the migration of millions from India to China to Nigeria and Brazil of people to urban areas, although South Africa certainly has its own particular and brutal history of urban development and restriction of the majority of its inhabitants’ movements.

British Academic Matt Birkenshaw writing a few years ago, after his own experience of shack fires while living in the Kennedy Road settlement in Durban, noted that shack fires are often described in the same or a similar language to natural disasters, when in fact they are a result of specific policy choices. According to Birkinshaw:

There is not enough affordable housing for everyone and low cost housing is rarely built close to the city centre. For this reason transport costs make even low-cost housing unaffordable for many people. Growing shack settlements are the result. Local government policy appears to be designed to force shack dwellers to live in “camps” and to prevent the inclusion of shacks in the city. Refusal to allow shack settlements access to electricity leads to the use of dangerous sources of light and heat, such as paraffin stoves and candles. Unwillingness to provide security of tenure stops shack dwellers from informally upgrading their homes with less flammable building materials. Very minimal water supply makes it impossible for shack dwellers to effectively fight fires themselves. Because of these policies, fires are increasingly frequent in shack settlements and shack dwellers face the continual threat of death, injury, homelessness, and loss of livelihood”.

Apartheid left cities with a geography defined by race. The limitations imposed by the apartheid state on permanent residency among black South Africans, and the restricted program on building permanent housing, combined with the strategic location of many homelands near to major urban centres left a legacy of sprawling informal settlements on the outskirts of South Africa’s major cities.

The advent of majority rule in 1994 saw the removal of restrictions on black movement in the country and the official incorporation of former Bantustans into South Africa. Economic pressures, in particular the continuing legacies of underdevelopment in these areas and the lack of significant land reform, saw millions of South African flock to cities in search of what little work was available there. This migration saw the further growth of informal settlements, still defined as merely temporary by government despite being decades old in some cases.

Derided on twitter by a certain opposition leader as “refugees”, subject of a media driven hysteria about invaders, these people are seen as surplus to requirements. This does not stop them transforming what appear to be bleak zones of nothingness into living, breathing, dynamic communities despite the poverty, crime, unemployment, a lack of sanitation or even some basic consumer goods.

It is the failure of government to specifically deal adequately with the rapid growth of informal settlements and broader society as a whole in terms of bringing about any real change in terms of South Africa’s economy and legacy of inequality. Here I don’t distinguish between the DA and the ANC, who both remain largely committed to the same urban policy paradigms bent on establishing mythical “World Class cities” rather than dealing with existing problems.

This is best symbolized by the festive white elephants littering the country known as soccer stadiums built in preparation for the 2010 world cup. While the residents of BM are still waiting for promised upgrades along with millions of their fellow citizens.

The question that remains is how have we normalised the existence of shacks, despite our apparent commitment to adequate housing in our Constitution? How do South Africans commute from Cape Town airport to the city centre without taking full cognisance of the level of inequality?

This normality, this acceptance of the unacceptable and our own inability to conceptualise a different South Africa, based upon a new vision of democratic urban development is the true horror. The existence of shacks is a symptom of a wider social cancer built upon the legacy of inequality and exploitation. It is the real scandal, not the fire which inevitably will occur as a result of their existence.

Abahlali with QQ Section residents are circumventing politics and delivering aid directly to BM fire victims

Abahlali baseMjondolo of the Western Cape – QQ Section Branch

Abahlali with QQ Section residents are circumventing politics and delivering aid directly to BM fire victims

On Saturday, the 12th of January, residents of QQ Section will be handing out used doors, mattresses, food, new school uniforms and other items to the victims of the recent BM Section fire.

We have been able to acquire these items through our own means. However, most of the aid that is meant to go to the victims of the fire, is being given out by Disaster Management (associated with the DA) or by SANCO and various NGOs (associated with the ANC). The aid is being politicised and the political parties are using the aid for their own electioneering benefit. Often, the aid is not even going to those who need it most.

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Daily Maverick: Shack fires: A devil in the detail of development

Shack fires: A devil in the detail of development

by Jared Sacks

According to the City of Cape Town, within the boundaries of the municipality alone, there are more than 100 deaths from shack fires every year. JARED SACKS examines the root causes of the problem and the city’s failure to address it.

On New Year’s morning a devastating fire broke out in BM Section shack settlement leaving about 4,000 people homeless and at least five dead.

Residents claim it took almost two hours for fire trucks to arrive, despite the Khayelitsha fire station being only a kilometre away. By then, hundreds of shacks were already ablaze and the single truck that responded to the emergency failed to get close enough to the fire to make a difference. It soon ran out of water and had to leave to find more. Eventually, more fire trucks came and, with the help of hundreds of residents using buckets to draw water from local taps, they were able to slow down the rapidly spreading inferno.

By late morning a strong Cape Southeaster was driving the fire, which began at about 4am, through the settlement. A single helicopter, the earlier dispatch of which could have greatly diminished the destructive force of the blaze, was able to bring the fire under control by about 10:30.

Police left unattended the charred remains of three dead bodies till well after 17:00 when investigators finally returned to the settlement. On Friday, another body was discovered when bulldozers began levelling the settlement and a fifth man died in hospital.

Richard Bosman of the City of Cape Town disputes this account. He puts the response time of fire-fighters at under 20 minutes saying access was hindered by residents’ personal belongings. Bosman appears to believe that the massive damage was the fault of residents themselves rather than the slow response of fire services or the complete lack of prevention initiatives by the city’s human settlements department.

A City of Cape Town media release the following day claimed that city staff were continually on-site helping residents rebuild their homes. But no disaster management officials were seen in BM Section during site visits by the Daily Maverick on the afternoon of 1 January.

By 3pm, however, some residents had already taken to selling off their charred zinc sheets and rebuilding their homes themselves, while an array of ANC politicians and clergy made vague promises of support to passersby. Top Democratic Alliance politicians did not bother to show up to conduct the poltical play of their own or to check if victims were receiving the support they are claiming to provide. According to the online publication GroundUp, effective leadership from both parties has been absent.

During a following visit by the Daily Maverick on Friday 4 January, it was discovered that disaster management officials only began to take record of the number of homeless the previous evening and were still struggling to put together a complete list of the dead. By Friday evening, there were 528 males, 591 females, 486 children and 55 babies on the list – though officials expected numbers to shoot up as working families checked in during the weekend and others returned from the Eastern Cape.

Most shocking, though, was that emergency accommodation at OR Tambo Hall meant that entire families were sleeping on the cold, hard floor. Disaster management had not thought it relevant to provide victims with even the most basic foam mattress. Perhaps this is why at least half of the victims chose to cram in with family rather than stay at the hall.

Community members’ accounts indicate that the fire was started by a man, said to be drunk, who fell asleep while cooking a midnight snack of boerewors. The unnamed individual and his family have since fled the settlement to avoid the fury of angry neighbours who lost everything in the fire.

Still, indignant residents are adamant that government should also shoulder blame for the conflagration. Kuselo, the younger brother of both Luyanda Ngcebetshana and Lunga Krexe, who died as flames engulfed their respective shacks, says “the government always comes with its promises” of development. BM Section has supposedly been in the subject of an upgrade for more than three years now – at least that is how long ago notice boards announcing the upgrading project appeared at the section’s entrance. The signs tell residents who the tender winners for this project are, but not much else.

The city’s development services department claims “good progress” is being made in the process of upgrading the area despite resistance from residents to proposed relocations. However, BM Section, like adjacent QQ Section, still lacks service roads, electricity, sanitation services and other basic and potentially lifesaving developments that have been promised. Taps, for instance, are few and far between, something residents complain hindered their ability to fight the fire. Kuselo claims he has not seen any change in the years since the upgrade began.

Councillor Ernest Sonnenberg, the mayoral committee member for human settlements, has confirmed that BM Section is indeed in the process of being upgraded. Yet neither Sonnenberg nor City of Cape Town spokesperson Kylie Hatton could explain why the upgrading process is taking so long. Sonnenberg has further urged victims to rebuild their homes at least 3m apart but failed to address the fact that residents do not have enough space to do so.

At the same time, residents aren’t actually being allowed to rebuild – yet. On Friday and Saturday bulldozers were levelling the area to make way for dirt roads and fire breaks. While people seem happy about that, they are concerned about where families displaced by these roads will end up. Sonnenberg could incur the wrath of the community if empty land next to the hall is not allocated to victims of the fire who appear to be unwilling to move out of Khayelitsha. (In her book Cities with ‘Slums’, urban planner Marie Hutchzermeyer notes that the resident’s fears may not be unfounded. Across the country shack fires have often been misused by local authorities to force shack dwellers into transit camps and out to barren peri-urban peripheries.)

Longtime resident, Edward Mavakala, was furious: “It is the government’s fault. Because there are no streets here, the fire brigade could not get through [to the fire].” He says residents have been asking for this for years. If the government had delivered just the basics, hundreds of homes could have been saved.

Mthobeli Qona from the Western Cape branch of the shack dwellers’ movement Abahlali baseMjondolo, who lives across the road in QQ Section, said both his settlement and BM Section, which are more than 20 years old, are among the first in line for upgrading in the City’s informal settlement master plan.

In the winter of 2007, the then mayor, Helen Zille, visited a flooded QQ Section where she promised to move residents to a site and service scheme in Bardale near Mfuleni the next year. Similar promises were allegedly made to residents of BM Section that same year. But residents of both communities say they’ve been hearing the same promises since democracy brought them politicians. They don’t understand why Zille would promise to move them to Bardale but later settle other communities on the same land.

In response to the city’s failure to fulfil these promises, residents of QQ and BM Section engaged in an informal settlement strike in 2010. This year, BM Section again took to the streets during recent protests that the mayor, Patricia de Lille, has claimed are being coordinated by the ANC Youth League which, she has implied, is bent on leading a full on civic insurrection in the city. My research into the protests indicates they are being driven by popular anger at inconsequential development projects and empty rhetoric about meaningful engagement in such projects.

Stoney Sithole, whose son and daughter both lost their homes and livelihoods during the fire, said that these previous protests were not about the ANC and DA. They “didn’t strike because of politics but because of need.” She insisted that her community has been promised houses for a long time.

A 2008 report on shack fires in Durban by academic Matt Birkinshaw, who spent months living in shack settlements in Durban, backs up BM residents’ claims that government policy is to blame. The report cites evidence that shack fires are becoming increasingly prevalent throughout the country as shack settlements grow and local governments refuse to tackle the challenge head on.

“Shack fires,” Birkinshaw concluded, “are not acts of God. They are the result of political choices, often at municipal level.”

Local government policy in Durban is designed to force poor residents into small and densely populated pieces of land without access roads where they are often denied electricity, proper plumbing and sanitation. Without security of tenure, residents are forced to build their homes with cheap flammable material rather than bricks and mortar.

Instead of blaming the victims of shack fires, the report concludes, municipalities should be held accountable for refusing to provide the same services to shack dwellers which they provide to people living in formal houses.

The root cause of the problem according to a 2008 article by Professor David McDonald is that “Cape Town’s decision makers have allocated the lion’s share of the city’s resources for the benefit of a few, leaving two-thirds of the city’s population struggling in varying degrees of poverty.” In other words, there is an economic rationale behind Cape Town’s “World City Syndrome” which, among other perverse outcomes, means that officials responded with more speed and zeal to a small New Years’ bush fire in Camps Bay than they did to the deadly and much more destructive fires in the shack settlements of BM Section, WB Section and Du Noon.

Shack fires and shack settlements in general are symptoms of a wider social malaise rather than core problems in themselves.

“Shack fires are routinely presented as natural disasters, as tragedies, when in fact they are a direct result of political decisions”, says Richard Pithouse of Rhodes University. “We only started to make some headway against the Aids pandemic when access to medication was politicised. In the same way we will only start to make progress against shack fires when they are politicised.”

Government policies are behind the shack-fire epidemic in Cape Town

Abahlali baseMjondolo Western Cape
1 January 2012

Government policies are behind the shack-fire epidemic in Cape Town

As residents of QQ Section shack settlement and members of the movement Abahlali baseMjondolo, we would like to say that we are not happy about what happened early this morning across the street from QQ Section.

A massive shack-fire, which started at around 4am, swept through almost the entire shack settlement of BM Section leaving thousands homeless and at least three (but possibly as much as six) people dead. We have a few Abahlali members in the settlement and, as residents of QQ Section, we also have a large number of friends and family who also were affected by the fire. We therefore remain in living solidarity with all those affect by the fire in BM section and other shack fires in WD Section and in Du Noon.

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