One of South Africa’s most tragic realities is that the vast majority of its citizens can’t afford the most basic amenities, never mind the flats to rent in Observatory, for example. One unacceptable spin off of this fact is that informal settlements, or shanty towns made up of shacks, are highly vulnerable to fast moving and all-consuming fires.
In July of 2012, there were 9 deaths from shack fires in Gauteng, South Africa and a total of 18 since the start of the year and over 1,500 people left homeless in 25 shack fires in Gauteng alone. If the trend continues to the end of 2012, there would be about 50 shack fires in total for this area exclusively. What about the rest of South Africa?
Shack fires have been a constant problem in the country because of informal settlers with inadequate safety measures in their homes.
As of October this year, it is estimated that there are over 2,600 informal shack settlements with a population of more than 2 million. There’s even organized groups defending the right of shack dwellers like the Abahlali baseMjondolo group. Since the end of the apartheid period in 1994, shack settlements grew from 300 to 2,600 last 2011. There is a government plan to build housing but it is going through a traumatic backlog with about 2.1 million houses yet to be built. In the meantime, shack fires are killing South Africans.
According to another survey, there are about 10 shack fires a day and one death every other day in South Africa. The fires are caused by a variety of reasons like lack of access to electricity so shack dwellers have no choice but to rely on candles, the use of poorly-made paraffin stoves, inadequate water supply, children left alone and houses too close to each other, unsanitary conditions, and insufficient emergency services. However, the government’s claim is that these are temporary camps and do not need basic services except instead of people staying for a short period, they end up living their entire lives in these places.
At the municipal level, shack fires are considered “natural disaster” like in eThekwini. They have their own Disaster Management office that hands out food, blankets, and water. If a shack fire occurs, the residents are often left to fend for themselves which again means the start of another cycle of poorly constructed shelters and lives.
The group Abahlali baseMjondolo has been actively campaigning for support from the government. Some of their demands have to do with shack fires like provisions for extinguishers and fire-fighting equipment, electricity, a fire brigade, and compensation for victims of shack fires. There has been no significant response from the government but private groups have begun to take action.
The Urban Mosaic Project
In response to the number of shack fires around the country, Urban Mosaic Project in Cape Town was created. Urban Mosaic Project’s main objective is to upgrade the building materials used in shack dwelling with fire retardant paint to be put in strategic places in the shack settlements. At the same time, they plan to use colourful paints as a way of making shack settlements look more liveable and homey. By getting sponsors to help pay for the paint, they can use the artists who volunteer their services to create aerial mosaics visible to anyone flying above Cape Town.
Another organization is the international group, Dorcas Aid which is a Christian relief and development cause to help the poor regardless of race, colour, or religion. In one of the July shack fires in Johannesburg, Dorcas was at the scene 4 hours after it started to provide assistance and aid to the victims. The fire was caused by a candle left burning and the settlement was so dense, no fire truck could access the fire. The roads were swallowed by rows of toilets and refuse.
Dorcas South Africa distributed blankets, food, and basic essentials and they do this whenever they can. They help people get back on their feet and try to educate the shack dwellers on ways to improve their lives.