A Big Devil in the Jondolos: A report on shack fires

Update: A summary of the report has now been published at Pambazuka and it has been discussed in an article in the Sunday Tribune

Monday 8 September 2008
Abahlali baseMjondolo Press Release

A Big Devil in the Jondolos
Abahlali baseMjondolo Launches a Report on Shack Fires in Advance of the City Wide Shack Fire Summit on 22 September 2008

Today we are launching an important report on shack fires. We asked for this report to be written and we worked closely with the writer at all stages. We are releasing the report today so that it can be widely discussed in the lead up to the City Wide Shack Fire Summit called by the movement for Monday 22 September 2008. We will launch the isiZulu version of the report soon. We call on all organisations that are concerned with justice and that want a city in which everyone is safe to read and discuss the report. The report is on our website in word and in pdf. Printed copies are available from the Abahlali baseMjondolo library in the Kennedy Road settlement.

Rural fires are declared as disasters. This is right. Shack fires are taken as normal. This is wrong. It cannot be normal for the poor to burn and to reburn. People should not be burnt while waiting for houses. Shack fires are a crisis. It is time to acknowledge that crisis. It is time to take that crisis seriously.

Promises made to us have been broken. We have suffered a lot. We are still suffering. We will continue to suffer.

We really exist to live.

We have done amazing things to fight for simple things.

Some rich people and some people in government think that we do not know our place. They feel that we are in the wrong place. They are trying to chase the shack dwellers out of the cities – to put us back where they think we belong. It is like a second xenophobia.

We are not willing to remain in the shadow of darkness. We are not willing to remain silence. We need to define ourselves before someone else defines us. We need to reflect on our lives and then put our version into the world.

Politics often becomes about those with names, the celebrities of struggle. Our politics is one of equality. Everybody matters. We need to celebrate those that are ignored and forgotten as we shape and reshape this world into a new world where everyone is respected.

We have discussed the fires in our movement. We have come to some conclusions. We have noticed that everybody talks about the mistakes that we make. Nobody talks about the reckless mistakes that the middle classes are making. They also get drunk. But they don’t burn because they are not forced to use paraffin and candles and because they are not forced to have walls made of plastic and cardboard. We do not have all the answers to the problems of shack fires. However we can create a platform for more discussion. That is our cleverness.

We are inviting all shack dwellers’ organisations as well as social movements, trade unions, NGOs, churches, academics, students’ organisations, the Municipal fire department and the Municipal housing department to the Shack Fire Summit.

We are not inviting the councillors because they are paid to lie and to make sure that we keep quiet. That is their job. They are not to be trusted. Their role is division. We do not have to rely on them. But the enemy is more than just the councillors. They are small parts in the whole system. It takes a very courageous councillor to align themselves with the poor and the working class. Most of them are being remote controlled.

On Saturday 20 September we will have a meeting with the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign, the Landless Peoples’ Movement, the Rural Network and Abahlali baseMjondolo from Durban, Pinetown, Pietermaritzburg, Cape Town and Kimberley.

On Sunday 21 September we will have a prayer meeting. We are inviting all the churches – the Nazarenes, the Zionists, the Catholics, the Anglicans, the Hindus, the Muslims – everyone. We need to ask for our struggle against the fires to be blessed. We need to honour everyone who has died in the fires. We need to take the spirits of the people who died in shack fires to their homes. The prayer meeting will start at 9:00 and run to 12:00 at the Kennedy Road Hall. At 14:00 we will have the third University of Abahlali baseMjondolo graduation, also in the Kennedy Road Hall.

On Monday 22 September we will have the City Wide Shack Fire Summit at the Foreman Road settlement. The Summit will be a chance for us to all learn to think together, to plan democratically, to let ideas move up instead of down. In the morning we will discuss the causes of fires. We will start by hearing from the victims of fires. We will hear from the unsung heroes and heroines of the shacks. Then everybody will be able to have their say. In the afternoon we will discuss the solutions. In our discussions we have come to our own views. But we will take the views of everyone at the summit. Everyone that comes will have the same right to shape the summit.

If people say that the problem is the drunkenness of the poor then we will have to shut down the shebeens.

If people say that the problem is the ignorance of the poor then we will have to bring in the NGOs to workshop the people.

If people say that the problem is that the poor are denied electricity, that we are forced to build our shacks close together and that we are not allowed to build with bricks then we will have to electrify the shacks and provide land and housing.

We will not be embarrassed if some people don’t want to accept our invitation and don’t want to take the opportunity to think and discuss and plan together. The embarrassment will be on those who continue to think that you can only think in the ICC, that it is impossible to think in the shacks.

People in government and some NGOs often tell us that we must talk development and not politics. They say that to oppose is to be out of order, or backward or unprofessionalized. But we can’t stop to struggle. Development is politics. Shack fires are not just accidents. There is a politics behind the fires. This comes through strongly in our report on shack fires. Our lives and the lives of our children require that we struggle. We don’t want to be workshoped. We don’t want to be trained to learn how to live without electricity and toilets and enough water. We want to meet and discuss and to make a plan for us to get what we need to be safe.

We do not count to any part of this world other than our movement. We have always resisted all attempts to remote control our movement. We will always resist these attempts.

We salute Tata Matt, the writer of this report. Like Antonios who was living in Motala Heights in 2006 Matt is from London where he is also a squatter. He is a humble man. He has lived with us in shacks in the Kennedy Road and Foreman Road settlements. He has seen what we have seen, felt what we have felt, touched what we have touched, tasted what we have tasted. He has lost his shack in a fire and helped to fight two fires. He has shown us that he is our equal. This is a living solidarity.

Join us to work together for a new, safer city.

For comment or further information contact:

S’bu Zikode: 083 547 0474
Mashumi Figlan: 079 584 3995
Lousia Motha: 083 950 4122
Mnikelo Ndabankulu: 079 745 0653
Zodwa Nsibande: 082 830 2707


A Big Devil in the Jondolos: A report on the politic of shack fires