Fire Devastates the Kennedy Road Settlement – At Least One Hundred Homes Destroyed

16 June 2009
Press Statement from Abahlali baseKennedy

Fire Devastates the Kennedy Road Settlement – At Least One Hundred Homes Destroyed

The Red Devil Must be Defeated

Today is the 16 June, Youth Day, the anniversary of the 1976 Soweto Uprising. In Johannesburg and Cape Town our comrades are struggling for the people to take this day back from the politicians.

Here at the Kennedy Road settlement we are burning, again. At about 1:30 last night a fire started after a paraffin stove was left unattended while a couple argued. Before it was put out around 100 shacks had burnt. At least 300 people have been left homeless. One woman has been very badly injured and has, only just now, been taken to hospital.

By the end of last year the Kennedy Road settlement had burnt 9 times. Since 2005 we have lost 5 people to fire in Kennedy Road. And it is not just Kennedy Road that has had to confront the plague of fires. In his 2008 end of year speech to the whole movement S’bu Zikode declared last year as the year of fire.

We have marched against fires and been shot at and arrested for marching against fires. We have organised a City Wide Summit on Shack Fires. After that summit we declared to the world that to live with constant fires is to live in a constant state of emergency. We have prepared and circulated a carefully researched report on shack fires. Bishop Rubin Phillip has said very clearly that the fires must be stopped and that our struggle against the red devil is just.

But the response from the City is always the same.

When we connect ourselves to electricity in order to make ourselves safe they send in their men with guns to disconnect us. They arrest us. They beat us. Sometimes they even shoot us. The result of this is more fires.

The first thing that happens after a fire is that government officials rush to blame the victims. They will say that we burn because we are drunk or because we are uneducated. They want to do this so that it seems that the oppressed are responsible for our own suffering. But as we have said so many times the rich also get drunk, they rich also get distracted by a child and the rich also have arguments. Some of us work in their houses and we know that this is true. They are not different to us. The only difference is that the rich have electricity and so leaving a stove unattended for a moment or knocking over a lamp doesn’t cause a fire.

When the fires happen a community will get very little support from the City. If the community is weak or divided the fire will be used as an excuse to force people into transit camps. The power to allocate the government shacks in the transit camp will be given to the people close to the councillor so that they get power over the settlement. Sometimes people who are critical will be left homeless. This has happened in Foreman Road and in Jadhu Place.

The government will say that people must accept the transit camps, which often means relocation, because they will be safe there. But in fact it is perfectly possible to electrify the settlements where they are and it is perfectly possible to electrify shacks as they are. Everybody knows that until 2001 the eThekwini Municipality used to electrify shacks. They stopped this at the same time as they started their notorious ‘Slum Clearance’ programme.

People are getting desperate, very desperate. After today’s fire some people wanted to attack the woman who had left her stove unattended. We had to protect her – we had to request the help of the police to keep her safe. It is not surprising that some shack dwellers are responding to armed electricity disconnections by disconnecting the rich.

We need to be very clear about the fact that across the country there is a war on the poor. Everywhere shack dwellers are under attack. Everywhere street traders are under attack. Everywhere the state does not see any need to follow the law when attacking us. Everywhere we are being driven out of the cities and dumped in transit camps. It is clear that we are being left to burn because we do not count. But it is also clear that we are also being left to burn because the fires assist the state in bringing us under their control and driving us out of the cities.

Enough is enough. The fires must stop.

Our demands are simple and they are clear.

1. The state must immediately electrify all shacks with the same urgency and speed with which they built the stadiums for 2010. While people wait for electrification they must be allowed to electrify their own shacks themselves.

2. The settlements must be upgraded where they are with democratic
development methods and this must be undertaken with the same urgency and speed with which the state built the stadiums for 2010. When the state is not able to house the people they must be allowed to build their own structures and in fact supported to do this.

3. There must be a moratorium on the sale or private development of all urban land until the people are housed.

We wish, again, to thank the Fire Department for their support. For some time now they have given us excellent support. They treat us as if we are people that do count. They come when we call them and they risk their lives for us. We deeply appreciated it.

However we note that it is now more than 12 hours since the fire started. The media have all come. But there is still no word from the City. Perhaps they are too busy evicting and shooting at street traders to help us.

In fact certain officials in the Housing Department of the eThekwini Municipality have made it quite clear that they intend to punish us for organising ourselves and speaking for ourselves. They consider this to be a very serious offence, a crime. They are determined to make sure that we must suffer because we have not accepted the policies of the ruling party. In South Africa there is no distinction between the party and the state. If you offend the party by speaking the truth then you offend the state and you will be punished by the state.

We have 300 people who are homeless. We need support. Any donations of food, clothes, blankets and building materials will be highly appreciated.
For further information and comment please contact:

Thina Khanyile, Deputy Chairperson, Kennedy Road Development Committee (and one of the Kennedy Six): 078 289 1314

Bheki Simelane, Member of the Kennedy Road Development Committee: 078 598 9491