Shack Fire Summit

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One of the services that was withdrawn from shack settlements after 2001 was electricity.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

Abahlali baseMjondolo (eThekwini) Press Statement
Friday, 08 August 2008

Let us Work Together to Stop the Plague of Shack Fires
Abahlali baseMjondolo Calls for a Shack Fire Summit

Obed Mlaba s house is symbolically burnt on 28 November 2007 in protest at the plague of fires.

This weekend the eight people that burnt to death in two shack fires in Cato Crest will be buried. This weekend we will continue to rebuild the Kennedy Road settlement after two fires in two weeks.

We do not accept that the poor must burn in shack fires. This is not God’s will.

We cannot be silent while facing these fires. If we were silent we would have no right to exist.

Some councillors just take the people’s votes and then leave them to burn with the fire. The people have put these councillors on trial and found them guilty. In Abahlali baseMjondolo we buried our councillors. Community organisations across Durban and across South Africa have rejected these councillors. The time of the councillors is over. The time of the people has come back.

When ever there is a shack fire the politicians rush to blame the people for being drunk or not watching their children properly. Let us be clear. People in houses also get drunk. Their children also like to play in the house. The difference is that they have electricity and so their houses do not burn when these things happen.

It is the Municipality that makes the people burn with fire. They separate us from the other people. It is like we do not belong to South Africa. They take their own time to build us houses but they don’t put the electricity while we wait. The fact that we are waiting for houses doesn’t mean that we must get burnt while we wait, that our children must get killed by rats while we wait, that women must get raped looking for a safe place to go to the toilet while we wait. We must all be safe while we wait.

If they put the electricity the fires will not come to us. The problem is not that we are stupid. We do not need training on how to avoid fires. The problem is that we do not have electricity.

Electricity will save our lives. Most fires are caused by candles and paraffin stoves. If they don’t connect we must connect. If they will not connect us then they must not arrest and beat us for connecting ourselves. If democracy is for everybody then everybody needs to be safe in a democracy and we are doing the work of the government when we connect ourselves. When we connect ourselves we are making the democracy real. When we connect ourselves we are making everyone count the same.

Anyone who says that electricity is a luxury that the poor do not deserve must spend one winter living in a shack and trying to survive the fires before they speak about what is a luxury and what is a necessity.

It is true that the government has failed to make enough electricity. But we cannot be expected to pay the price for their laziness. If someone has to pay the price it is better that the big companies and rich people that can afford generators should pay the price. Anyway, why are all the lights in the government and business offices on at night while we burn in the dark without electricity?

When Abahlali baseMjondolo started the media had no interest in shack fires. It took us a lot of time and energy and many police beatings before we could restore our human dignity. Now our lives are taken more seriously. The fires are now reported in the media. We appreciate this. We get more support from churches and even individuals and we appreciate this. But we still have the same old problems of NGOs that we don’t know raising money on East Coast Radio in the name of our suffering.

We used to have to ask our Indian neighbours to phone the fire brigade because they wouldn’t come if we phoned. Now the fire brigade comes quickly in Durban and when they get to the fire they work with the people. They do a good job. We appreciate it. They now take us as citizens in this country – and they take us all as citizens, they do not ask for an ID before they put the water on the flames. In Pinetown they still come too slowly though. A person who hears that there is a fire at home can leave work and get home before the fire brigade gets there.

We used to be on our own after the fires. Disaster management would either not come or, if they did, they would give us food for one meal and a blanket and then leave. Now the eThekwini Municipality has given good building materials to the people in Kennedy. They have given cement, wooden poles, corrugated iron, planks and nails . At first they wanted to make a transit camp but we said no. After we discussed it together they are now supporting the people to rebuild. We really appreciate it that after all these years of neglect and conflict they are now talking to the people and bringing the people building materials after fires. We also really appreciate that the City will be supporting our Clean Up Campaign on 16 August.

What we have won we have won through struggle. Our advice is that all settlements must mobilise and be vocal.

The people’s voice is always condemned by party politics. The parties all compete to bury the children burnt in the fires. None of them demand electricity for the poor, none of them defend the electricity connections made by the poor when the police come to disconnect us and arrest us and beat us back into the darkness and the fires. Our advice to other settlements is that the people should organise independently of the parties. But each settlement must decide this question for themselves.

What we have won cannot just be for Kennedy Road. It cannot just be for the 14 Abahlali baseMjondolo settlements that are now negotiating with the City for upgrades. Each step forward must be a step forward for all the settlements. Each victory must be shared.

But we are disappointed that after the Cato Crest people asked to also get building materials some officials are saying that shacks are being burnt purposefully so that people can get these materials. Who would cheat their own life? Who would burn themselves? If the City want to keep moving forward they must put away, for ever, the idea that shack dwellers are dirty, lazy, stupid and dishonest. After many years of struggle the hated of black people had to be put away. Now the hatred of the poor must be put away. We must build one city together by talking and working together. And while we are doing this we must remember that South Africa belongs to all who live in it – not just those with ID books.

In Abahlali baseMjondolo we have held many memorials for people killed in shack fires. We have fought many fires. We have rebuilt many settlements after fires. We have had many discussions about fires. We have asked researchers and lawyers to investigate the fires. Right now Matt Birkinshaw and Mnikelo Ndabankulu are going to different settlements and talking to people about the fires. They will make a report for us.

Our position on the fires will develop as we have more discussions with more people. But we are already committed to these demands:

1. Every settlement needs taps spread through out the settlement as well as hoses and fire extinguishers and every settlement needs these immediately.
2. The City must immediately reverse its 2001 decision to stop electrifying shacks.
3. People who have not been connected to electricity by the City must be supported to connect themselves.
4. All settlements must, where ever possible, be upgraded where they are with proper houses and this must be done with democratic and not top down planning methods.
5. While people are being connected to electricity the City must ensure that everyone gets good service from the fire brigade and that all settlements get good building materials after fires.
6. Because the fires are the result of the failure of the City to continue to electrify shacks after 2001 they should pay compensation to all the people that have suffered in the fires from 2001 till now.

We have decided to call a city-wide Summit on Shack Fires. We invite all shack dwellers’ organisations, all NGOs that can offer technical support, churches and all relevant city officials. We have decided on the following programme of action in the lead up to the Summit on Shack Fires:

1. Saturday 9 August till Friday 6th September: Internal Meetings of All Shack Dwellers’ Organisations. All Abahlali baseMjondolo branches, other shack dwellers’ organisations and allied poor peoples’ movements will hold internal meetings with their members to discuss their experiences of shack fires and their views on the way forward. This will begin the process of developing an agenda for the Summit on Shack Fires. Leadership will not formulate the agenda. It will come out of these discussions.
2. Saturday 7th September: Summit Planning Meeting of All Shack Dwellers’ Organisations at the Kennedy Road settlement. We will invite every settlement in KwaZulu-Natal to send representatives. We will invite representatives from our branches in the Western Cape and the Northern Cape. We will invite representatives from sister movements like the Landless Peoples’ Movement in Johannesburg and the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign in Cape Town. We will also invite the South African Shack and Rural Dwellers’ Organisation and the Homeless Peoples’ Federation. These organisations do not all agree on politics. But we are all agreed that the fires must be brought to an end. We will try and build a united front against the fires.
3. Sunday 21 September: Mass Prayer hosted by Abahlali baseMjondolo at the Kennedy Road settlement. All shack dwellers’ organisations are welcome.
4. Monday 22 September: Summit on Shack Fires at the Foreman Road settlement. This summit will give all the shack dwellers organisations a chance to engage with the City. We do not want the summit at the ICC. We want it in the shacks. We do not need the police at this summit. We do not need their helicopters flying just over our heads. We just want to talk. We are just going to talk. If it goes well we could, together, develop a new way of doing things in Durban. If it fails we will have to go back to the streets. Human beings cannot live in fires.

The media are welcome to come to all of these events. For more information or comment please contact:

Louisa Motha: 0839574122
Shamita Naidoo: 0743157962
Mnikelo Ndabankulu: 0797450653
Zodwa Nsibande: 0828302707