Continued existence of shacks is a real scandal

| Ben Fogel
Aftermath of BM Section fire in Khayelitsha. Photo by Faizel Slamang.

Yet another shack fire has devastated the BM section of Khayelitsha. On New Years morning fires raged through the community, leaving about 4,000 people homeless and killing at least four. The responses from authorities to what has now become a routine occurrence in the area have been mixed.

The response time of fire fighters was reportedly around two hours, despite the fire station being only a kilometer away. One City of Cape Town official Richard Bosman blamed the slow response time on the apparent obstruction of the routes to BM section caused by “resident’s belongings”. What that means in a community still lacking paved roads and desperately in need of “upgrading”, I do not know.

But the real scandal is the existence of shacks. Shack fires are just a symptom of a wider injustice. Shacks have come to be accepted as normal, a permanent existence, yet municipalities continue to insist they are merely temporary. The houses will be built but the settlements cannot be upgraded, as shacks are not permanent structures.

Shacks then occupy a zone of legal flux. If residents attempt to upgrade their dwellings into permanent structures they risk incurring the wrath of municipal demolition teams. Shack-dwellers occupy a curious position between rights bearing citizens and criminality, in which their very housing exists beyond the law.

This is the location of some of the most marginalised people in our society: sprawling shantytowns devoid of basic services-from water to roads to electricity. Despite the oft-repeated assurances of future upgrades from both major political parties, across the country’s mega-townships such as Khayelitsha in Cape Town, most of these upgrades have yet to appear.

In these high-density settlements often lacking electricity, residents are forced to use paraffin lamps for light or gas stoves in order to cook. It is in these circumstances where a misstep can lead to an inferno or falling asleep can destroy a community. As the lamp falls over and the shack is consumed by flames in a matter of minutes, the neighbouring shacks join soon afterwards.

It’s not only damage to property and bodies done by the fire. A psychological toll is left too, as people see the communities disappear in a matter of hours and are forced to rebuild their lives on a regular basis. The physical trauma can be repaired, but can the psychological?

It’s surely obvious that the fortress suburbs that occupy the more privileged sections of our cities, don’t face the same risk from fire. They have electricity,bricks and concrete and space. Not to mention the likely faster response time of emergency services.

Mike Davis writing in a seminal essay titled “Planet of Slums”, which would later become a book, noted that somewhere in one of the emerging mega-cities of the developing world, Jakarta, Lagos, Mumbai or Johannesburg a child would be born, which mark the first time majority of the world’s population lived in urban areas.

Over the last few decades the rapid urbanisation present in South Africa, has been even surpassed by the migration of millions from India to China to Nigeria and Brazil of people to urban areas, although South Africa certainly has its own particular and brutal history of urban development and restriction of the majority of its inhabitants’ movements.

British Academic Matt Birkenshaw writing a few years ago, after his own experience of shack fires while living in the Kennedy Road settlement in Durban, noted that shack fires are often described in the same or a similar language to natural disasters, when in fact they are a result of specific policy choices. According to Birkenshaw:

There is not enough affordable housing for everyone and low cost housing is rarely built close to the city centre. For this reason transport costs make even low-cost housing unaffordable for many people. Growing shack settlements are the result. Local government policy appears to be designed to force shack dwellers to live in “camps” and to prevent the inclusion of shacks in the city. Refusal to allow shack settlements access to electricity leads to the use of dangerous sources of light and heat, such as paraffin stoves and candles. Unwillingness to provide security of tenure stops shack dwellers from informally upgrading their homes with less flammable building materials. Very minimal water supply makes it impossible for shack dwellers to effectively fight fires themselves. Because of these policies, fires are increasingly frequent in shack settlements and shack dwellers face the continual threat of death, injury, homelessness, and loss of livelihood”.

Apartheid left cities with a geography defined by race. The limitations imposed by the apartheid state on permanent residency among black South Africans, and the restricted program on building permanent housing, combined with the strategic location of many homelands near to major urban centres left a legacy of sprawling informal settlements on the outskirts of South Africa’s major cities.

The advent of majority rule in 1994 saw the removal of restrictions on black movement in the country and the official incorporation of former Bantustans into South Africa. Economic pressures, in particular the continuing legacies of underdevelopment in these areas and the lack of significant land reform, saw millions of South African flock to cities in search of what little work was available there. This migration saw the further growth of informal settlements, still defined as merely temporary by government despite being decades old in some cases.

Derided on twitter by a certain opposition leader as “refugees”, subject of a media driven hysteria about invaders, these people are seen as surplus to requirements. This does not stop them transforming what appear to be bleak zones of nothingness into living, breathing, dynamic communities despite the poverty, crime, unemployment, a lack of sanitation or even some basic consumer goods.

It is the failure of government to specifically deal adequately with the rapid growth of informal settlements and broader society as a whole in terms of bringing about any real change in terms of South Africa’s economy and legacy of inequality. Here I don’t distinguish between the DA and the ANC, who both remain largely committed to the same urban policy paradigms bent on establishing mythical “World Class cities” rather than dealing with existing problems.

This is best symbolized by the festive white elephants littering the country known as soccer stadiums built in preparation for the 2010 world cup. While the residents of BM are still waiting for promised upgrades along with millions of their fellow citizens.

The question that remains is how have we normalised the existence of shacks, despite our apparent commitment to adequate housing in our Constitution? How do South Africans commute from Cape Town airport to the city centre without taking full cognisance of the level of inequality?

This normality, this acceptance of the unacceptable and our own inability to conceptualise a different South Africa, based upon a new vision of democratic urban development is the true horror. The existence of shacks is a symptom of a wider social cancer built upon the legacy of inequality and exploitation. It is the real scandal, not the fire which inevitably will occur as a result of their existence.

TOPICS:  Housing Human Rights

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