SACSIS: A State of Emergency for the Poor

A State of Emergency for the Poor

Shack fires burn hot and fast. It’s not always easy to predict their speed and direction because as paraffin stoves explode in large balls of flame fires can suddenly jump ahead or to the side.

In most settlements the number of taps is entirely inadequate for people to be able to try and put the flames out on their own. Usually the only viable strategy to fight shack fires is to demolish a ring of shacks around the fire and let it burn itself out. But when the wind is blowing the fires often move too fast and whole settlements can be lost.

Once a fire is engulfing a settlement anyone that can’t get out of their shack in a couple of minutes is at risk of death or serious injury. Children, elderly people, disabled people and people with a serious illness are most at risk. Sleeping off a night out could also be fatal.

People often lose all their possessions in shack fires and it can take months or even years to recover from a fire. The damage is not just economic. Children are often haunted by the experience of the fires and recurring nightmares and other signs of post-traumatic stress are common.

On the average day there are ten shack fires in South Africa. It is striking how often the immediate response of government officials to a shack fire is to tell the media that the fire was consequent to drunkeness. Of course fires have been started when a drunk person has knocked over a candle. But drunkness is often automatically presented as the cause of fires without any evidence being sought or provided in support of this assumption. In these cases it becomes clear that the victims of systemic injustice are being blamed for their suffering in order to preserve the illusion that the system is virtuous.

Once the victims of systemic injustice have been successfully blamed for their suffering then the solution to that suffering is invariably to bring in NGOs that will offer people training rather than to reform the system. So people at risk of cholera are trained to wash their hands rather than provided with clean water, people at risk of shack fires are trained not to knock over candles rather than provided with electricity and so on.

The causes of shack fires are clearly systemic. If you live in a cramped room with plastic or cardboard walls and have to rely on candles for light and a paraffin stove and a brazier for heat it is obvious that you will be at permanent risk of fire. The immediate short term solution to shack fires is for people to be provided with better building materials and electricity. The longer term solution is for people to be provided with decent housing. It’s hardly surprising that many shack dwellers’ organisations are refusing fire safety training and instead demanding practical improvements in their living conditions.

These conditions vary across the country. At a shack fire summit hosted by the shack dwellers’ movement Abahlali baseMjondolo last month delegates from Jo’burg reported that they got minimal support from the fire brigade and had to confront shack fires on their own. In Durban delegates reported that they now, after years of struggle, get excellent service from the fire brigade. In Cape Town and Jo’burg shack dwellers can sometimes access electricity.

In Durban the City took a decision in 2001 to cease the provision of electricity to shack dwellers. Delegates from across the country noted that there was very little support from the Department of Home Affairs in getting replacement ID books which often meant that women dependent on child support grants or families dependent on pensions were left penniless. A major concern at the summit was that when the state did offer support after fires, such as offering building materials, this was often provided via local party elites and denied to individuals and organisations known to be vocal critics of the ruling party.

There was equal concern about the fact that fires, as well as other disasters like floods, were increasingly being used to compel people to accept relocation to transit camps or temporary relocation areas. These camps are essentially government built shack settlements that are often in desolate areas on the peripheries of cities. All of the shack dwellers organisations that were at the summit are militantly opposed to the transit camps and see them as a convenient way for Cities to expel the poor from well located land close to work, schools and clinics to what are widely called ‘human dumping grounds’.

Around the world shack dwellers have resisted forced removal to peripheral government housing. In countries like Nigeria and Brazil there have been times when authoritarian governments have been widely believed to have started fires in order to force shack dwellers to accept relocation. Here in South Africa no one has alleged that the government has deliberately set shack fires. But at the recent summit on shack fires it was clear that most delegates are convinced that shack dwellers are being deliberately left to burn in accidental fires in order to force them to accept relocation.

There is an equally widespread view that Cities and Provincial governments are increasingly seizing on fires, and other disasters like floods, to expel the poor from the cities. People point out that requests for something as simple as a few toilets or taps can be ignored for years but that when a whole settlement is burnt down or flooded the state suddenly moves very quickly to prevent rebuilding, to throw up transit camps and to compel people to accept these camps.

If the state does not wish to be seen to be exploiting the structural risk of fires in shack settlements in order to strengthen its attempts to expel poor people from cities it needs to move fast to reduce these structural risks. First steps in this direction would include a clear assertion of the right to electricity for all and the provision of more taps as well as fire extinguishers and building materials less flammable than plastic and cardboard.