Daily News: Careless council moves have led to shack fires


Careless council moves have led to shack fires
The adoption of the Slums Clearance Programme in 2001 has denied provision of basic services to our shackland dwellers

September 24, 2008 Edition 1

Imraan Buccus

Little more than a week ago, almost the entire Foreman Road shack settlement in Clare Estate burnt down, leaving thousands destitute. The next morning residents found a body in the ashes. There had also been a devastating fire in the same settlement last year. The photographs of the morning after are apocalyptic.

The nearby Kennedy Road settlement has had seven major fires this year. Just a few weeks ago eight people, including five children, were burnt to death in a shack fire in Cato Crest. My family, as well as most Daily News readers, I am sure, were deeply shocked to read about these fires from the comfort of our sturdy homes.

A recent Abahlali baseMjondolo report written by Robert Neuwirth, an American journalist who lived in shack settlements in Rio, Bombay, Nairobi and Istanbul while researching his celebrated book Shadow Cities, shows that on an average day there are 10 shacks 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, results in the loss of ID books and school uniforms, and render the already poor destitute. They create acute stress for children, many of whom are tortured by recurring nightmares about the fires. Some lose their HIV medication and getting more can be 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 does not make them go away. People now just have to live in them without enough toilets, taps, 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One of the services that was withdrawn for shack settlements after 2001 was electricity, and there is a direct link between the fires and the city’s decision in 2001 to cease the provision of electricity to shack dwellers.


When people are cramped 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 the firefighters reach the scene.

But shack fires spread quickly and it is impossible for people to fight a fire effectively if, as in Foreman Road, there is only one tap in the whole settlement. Despite the very high risk of fire in shack settlements, the city does not provide residents with fire extinguishers. This is unacceptable.

There is a direct connection between the failure to provide basic services to shack settlements and the regular and often catastrophic fires.

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 1970s. These policies have never worked and are now entirely discredited internationally. The reason why they fail is that 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 out-of-town housing developments is a viable solution to the housing crisis. In fact, 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 seek to support shack settlements so that they can develop into viable communities with decent conditions. The first step is to secure tenure for residents so that there is no threat of eviction, the next is to provide basic services and the third is to formalise the housing.

But in South Africa we are making two fundamental mistakes. The first is that our only focus is on building houses and this means that we leave people in the most appalling and insecure conditions while they wait for housing. The second is that much of the housing being provided is, as under apartheid, being built on the periphery of the cities where people simply cannot 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 about things like tenure security and access to basic services.

We cannot continue with a situation where to be poor in Durban means that your home will be burnt down again and again and again. We need decisive action to stop the relentless fires devastating the poorest communities in our city.

# Imraan Buccus is a university-based researcher and contributing author to African Politics – Beyond the Third Wave of Democratisation – Juta Press (2008)