The Burning Season is Here

Shack fires are a constant danger. But that danger becomes more serious in winter. This is because during winter people who are living in shacks are trying to keep warm. As a result people resort to making fires which increases the risk of their homes being burnt. There was a serious fire in the Foreman Road settlement in Durban in the past month leaving hundreds of people destitute. On Sunday five people lost their lives in the fire that burnt down the Plastic View settlement in Pretoria. On the same day another fire broke out in the Kenville settlement in Durban which left 76 families without homes and their documents, work clothes and school uniforms burnt.

Shack fires are a result of the failure by the state, including municipalities, to provide services like water and electricity to shack settlements, as well as the failure to undertake urban land reform and to upgrade shack settlements into formal housing. We are left to burn because we do not count to this government and to this society. Our lives are not taken as human lives. Profit comes before people and the party comes before society.

We have struggled against the conditions that result in shack fires for more than ten years. We have made progress in some areas. When we formed our movement, the eThekwini Municipality had a policy against electrifying shack settlements. Through struggle that policy was overturned. However the process of electrifying the shacks is too slow. Therefore people resort to other measures in order to keep themselves warm during winter, to cook safely, to be able to watch TV and to have light to study. Electricity is life. For as long as we continue to be denied electricity peoples’ connections will remain necessary. We stand for people’s connections that are made carefully and safely in a well organised way and without any profit motive.

In more than ten years of struggle, we have experienced a lot of shack fires. We have lost many lives during these fires. From the beginning, the politics of fire was an important part of our struggle. In 2005 one of our own comrades Zodwa Nsibande sustained serious injuries and nearly lost her life in a shack fire. At the time she was a second year IT student at Durban Computer College. She had to drop out as a result of the severe wounds that she sustained during the fire. In 2006 Mhlengi Khumalo, who was one year old, lost his life in Kennedy Road Settlement. In 2007 we were attacked by the police while protesting against the conditions that lead to shack fires. In 2008 we organised a city wide shack fire summit and produced a report on shack fires.

Yet after all these years and all this struggle we continue to burn. How many lives must be lost before the municipality speeds up the process of electrifying our homes in Durban? How many lives must be lost before shack fires are taken as a national disaster? How many of us must die before our lives are taken as human lives? How many of us must die before urban land reform and participatory upgrades from shacks to formal housing are taken as an urgent priority?

We call for an urgent assistance from the Municipality in Durban for the residents of the Kenville settlement on housing needs and from the Department of Home Affairs on Identity Documents that have been lost during this fire. We also call for support for those who have lost everything from churches and other organisations. So far the eThekwini Disaster Management has only provided one tent for both males and females. We also need a shelter for Women and Children to respect their dignity because they cannot share one tent with the Men. The same thing happened after people in the KwaMamsuthu were left homeless in floods two months ago.

We remain committed to the struggle to insist that every life must be counted as a human life. We remain committed to the struggle for land and housing. We remain committed to the struggle to ensure that shack fires are taken as a national crisis. We remain committed to urgent and long term action to put an end to the fires.

Abahlali baseMjondolo, or AbM, is a shack-dwellers' movement in South Africa. It campaigns to improve the living conditions of poor people and to democratize society from below. The movement refuses party politics and boycotts elections. It's key demand is that the social value of urban land should take priority over its commercial value and it campaigns for the public expropriation of large privately owned landholdings. Read other articles by Abahlali baseMjondolo, or visit Abahlali baseMjondolo's website.