Sunday Tribune: Slums built on the ashes of apartheid

Slums built on the ashes of apartheid

September 21 2008 at 01:42PM

By Imraan Buccus

Last Saturday almost the entire Foreman Road shack settlement in Clare Estate, Durban, burnt down, leaving thousands destitute.

The next morning residents found a body in the ashes

There was a devastating fire in the same settlement in 2007.

The photographs from the morning after are apocalyptic. The nearby Kennedy Road settlement has had seven major fires in 2008.

Just a few weeks ago eight people, including five children, were burnt to death in a shack fire in Cato Crest.

My family, together, I am sure, with most Sunday Tribune readers, has been deeply shocked to read about these fires in the comfort of our sturdy homes.

The shack dwellers’ movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo, recently issued a report on shack fires.

Robert Neuwirth, the American journalist who lived in shack settlements in Rio, Mumbai, Nairobi and Istanbul while researching his celebrated book, Shadow Cities, wrote that the report “is necessary reading, written with contained fury”.

“It is an indictment of the policies that have led to hundreds of deaths in South Africa’s squatter communities every year.”

The report shows that on an average day there are 10 shack fires in South Africa.

In Durban there is an average of one shack fire a day.

Shack fires put young children and old and disabled people at particular risk, result in the loss of identity documents and school uniforms and render the already poor destitute.

They also create acute stress for children, many of whom are tortured by recurring nightmares about the fires. Some lose their HIV medication and getting additional supplies is sometimes almost impossible.

Here in Durban, from 1990 until the city adopted its controversial slums clearance programme in 2001, serious attempts were made to provide life-saving basic services to shack settlements.


But after the adoption of the slums clearance programme all shack settlements were instantly deemed “temporary” and the provision of basic services was largely stopped.

But a bureaucratic decision to declare shacks temporary doesn’t make them go away.

People now just have to live in them without enough taps, toilets, paths, drains and so on.

The decision to stop the provision of basic services is a key cause of the fires and a key cause of the difficulty that residents have in fighting the fires.

One of the services that was withdrawn from shack settlements after 2001 was electricity.

There is a direct link between the fires and this decision.

When people are crammed into one-roomed shacks with walls of plastic and cardboard, the smallest accident with a candle or paraffin stove can result in thousands losing everything in a matter of minutes.

Everyone seems to agree that the fire brigade does a good job once they reach the scene.

But shack fires spread quickly and once a fire is started it is impossible for people to fight it effectively if, as in Foreman Road, there is only one tap in the whole settlement.

Despite the high risk of fire in shack settlements, the city does not provide residents with fire extinguishers.

This is unacceptable.

If we are to have any claim to be a caring city the decision to cease the provision of life- saving basic services to shack settlements must be reconsidered with maximum urgency.

In fact, given the stress that the constitution puts on the right to life and the rights of the child, it is probably unlawful.

The whole policy of slum clearance is fundamentally misguided. This was the policy of apartheid and of other authoritarian regimes like the dictatorship that ran Brazil in the 70s.

These policies have never worked and are now entirely discredited internationally.

The reason they fail is because they see shacks, rather than the housing crisis, as the problem.

They fail to understand that shacks are poor people’s solution to the housing crisis.

Neither knocking down shacks nor forcibly removing people to housing developments out of town are viable solutions to the housing crisis.

Both approaches just make the housing crisis worse.

These days the progressive policies that have been developed in countries like Brazil and the Philippines are not about “eradicating” or “clearing” slums, but instead seeking to support shack settlements so they can develop into viable communities with decent conditions.


The first step is to secure tenure for residents, so there is no threat of eviction. The next is to provide basic services, and the third is to formalise the housing.

But here in South Africa we have got it all wrong.

We are making two fundamental mistakes.

The first is that our only focus is on building houses. This means we leave people in the most appalling and insecure conditions while they wait for housing.

The second is that much of the housing that is being provided is, as under apartheid, being built on the periphery of the cities where people simply can’t survive.

We have failed to understand that where people live is sometimes more important to them than the structure in which they live.

We have also failed to understand that housing rights are not just about access to a physical structure – they are also about such things as security of tenure and access to basic services.

Abahlali baseMjondolo has called a city-wide shack fire summit for Monday. It has invited all shack dwellers’ organisations, academic experts, NGOs and the municipality.

Let’s hope that all these different groups take up this invitation, put their heads together and come up with a set of practical strategies to stop the fires.

We cannot continue with a situation where to be poor in Durban means that your home will be burnt down again and again.

We need decisive action to stop the relentless fires that are devastating the poorest communities in our city.

# Imraan Buccus is a research organisation and university-based researcher.