On Sunday, 29 November 2015 about 800 informal dwellings in Masiphumelele were razed to the ground in a huge fire fanned by a strong south-easter.
Two lives were lost in the conflagration and the future of many more looks bleak as greater Cape Town winds down for the festive season. Assuming an average of 5 persons per dwelling, some 4000 souls have been displaced by the fire.
Fires of this nature are entirely foreseeable and occur with frightening repetitiveness in informal settlements around Cape Town. They threaten the lives and other human rights of those living in fire prone areas. The prospect of successfully fighting the fires is severely hampered by the densely packed, highly inflammable and haphazardly designed layout of informal settlements.
Aerial bombardment of flames impossible at night
Aerial bombardment of flames is impossible at night, and most often the shack fires start at night. Fire trucks are too large to get access and fire hydrants are not installed in many areas served by no more than a communal tap and toilet as well as an illegal electricity connection.
The human settlements authorities at local, provincial and national level do not have any pro-active strategy for preventing the loss of life and property that accompanies these disasters apart from the “re-blocking” of informal settlements that affords better access by emergency services vehicles. The slow rate at which re-blocking is carried out leaves a lot to be desired. The informal dwellings destroyed due to official inertia hardly qualify as “access to adequate housing” which is a constitutionally guaranteed right for all people living in SA. Those left homeless by fires find themselves in an entirely avoidable emergency situation and put great strain on the capacity of the city to cope with the disaster that has overtaken them.
Undesirable wood and iron structures
The temporary relocation areas that are utilised by those whose homes are destroyed, whether by fire or deliberately in re-blocking or other developmental exercises, are less than desirable wood and iron structures that are too hot in summer and too cold in winter. Many TRA dwellers are left to cope with the depradations of life in a TRA for year after year. Those who lose a shack are given poles and corrugated iron sheets and are expected to get on with the task of rebuilding their shattered lives on their own. Both houses and shacks were destroyed in the latest Masi blaze.
It can surely not be beyond the wit of the State, whose obligation it is to “respect, protect, promote and fulfil” the dignity, bodily and psychological integrity and right to access to adequate housing of all, to devise a better way of accommodating the poor who are flocking to the metropolitan areas of the prosperous provinces in a tidal wave of economic refugees who can find no work, no services and no hope in the rural hinterland of the country. Some leave their own brick and mortar RDP houses for the informal settlements in order to seek a better life for their families. This disqualifies them from obtaining a metropolitan RDP house.
Cape Town not a caring city
Masiphumelele also happens to be one of many informally settled areas in Cape Town which is not only vulnerable to runaway fires but is also prone to flooding in wet winters. The city complains that squatters settle land that is not fit for human habitation due to the wetland nature of its topography, but settlements mushroom in any available space and no alternative suitable space is offered to those squatting precariously between summer fires and winter floods. To call Cape Town a caring and compassionate city in these circumstances is grossly inaccurate.
The surface area of the whole of Masiphumelele is but 2% of the area of the valley in which it is situated which is within the urban edge. Yet, 30 % of the population of the valley lives in Masi. This cannot be right in a democratic state founded upon the values of human dignity, the achievement of equality and the advancement of human rights and freedoms.
Human Rights Commission’s unfavourable comment
The Human Rights Commission has commented unfavourably on the human settlements policy in the country. This is how the commissioners put it: “Therefore, despite the room for creative policy options available to State respondents in realising the right of access to adequate housing which allows for solutions suitable to a variety of contexts, State respondents appear to be adopting a rigid approach to realising the right.
Notwithstanding the various protections afforded to poor communities in international law, national law, and case law, poor people continue to experience daily rights violations. Consequently, approaches to housing programming are not having the desired impact of progressively realising the right to adequate housing and in some cases are in fact leading to perpetual rights violations where poor people continue to be excluded from the benefits democracy ought to be delivering to them. What is required is a shift in mind-set of how State departments approach their housing obligations and interpret the concept of ‘security of tenure’ in respect to policies to ensure that rights violations are addressed.
Dignity, after all, is about respecting the way in which people live without forcing one specific model of living upon them, while at the same time ensuring that living conditions are constantly improved, taking into account circumstances that may prevent them from acquiring the basics needed to live a dignified life.”
Duly admonished in this way, it is fervently to be hoped that the housing authorities will break the mould of their rigid thinking and come up with a swift and suitable solution to the issues they have co-created by allowing those living in the informal part of the settlement at Masi to suffer as they have on repeated occasions due to fires and floods.
Alternatives are available. Lightweight and durable structures of a cost that is comparable to that of a TRA unit can be constructed within a reasonable time frame.
The burnt out area can be re-blocked in consultation with its established inhabitants. The foot-print of the settlement can be reduced in area by building two or even three storey structures, on stilts in areas prone to flooding. Giving informal settlers title to a re-blocked plot, free gratis and for nothing, will enable them to borrow against the value of their “waterfront plots” and use the capital so raised to build for themselves. An integrated settlement which protects rather than pollutes the waters of Wildevoelvlei is possible. What is needed is imagination, a determination to implement the Bill of Rights for those dispossessed by the fire, and the political will to do what is necessary to regularise the situation.
Create livable waterfront
The crisis in Masi is an opportunity for the human settlements authorities to put their best feet forward to create a sustainable, liveable and beautiful Masiphumelele Waterfront.
Cynical observers will say that instead of doing their work diligently and without delay, the human settlements departments involved will simply close down for Christmas and leave those displaced by the fire to their own devices. Here’s hoping that cynics will be proved wrong on this occasion and that the change in mind-set for which the Human Rights Commission pleads will manifest itself. – www.accountabilitynow.org.za