The Politics of Fire

A shack burnt in the aftermath of the electricity disconnections in the Kennedy Road settlement
A shack burnt in the aftermath of the electricity disconnections in the Kennedy Road settlement

Abahlali baseMjondolo has long sought to politicise fire & shit: to show that people suffer fires because electricity is refused, to show that people suffer diarrhoea because clean water is refused. This press release responds to the active and of course armed withdrawal of electricity from the Kennedy Road settlement in February 2008.

Submitted by bomvu on April 20, 2008

Friday, 15 February 2008
Abahlali baseMjondolo Press Release

City Escalates Its War on the Poor
Mass Disconnections from Electricity at Gun Point in the Kennedy Road Settlement

The day after Abahlali baseMjondolo announced that we would be challenging the legality of the notorious Slums Act in court the Kennedy Road settlement was attacked by the Municipality. They arrived with the South African Police Services, including the dog unit, and the Municipal Security. They were very heavily armed. It was clear that they were prepared for a war.

They began at one side of the settlement and started to disconnect everyone from electricity. They disconnected the people who have connected themselves and they disconnected the people who have prepaid meters in their shacks. They didn’t just disconnect the meters but they dug up the cables and destroyed them. It is clear that they have decided that our disconnection will be permanent. No warning was given and people’s homes were entered without their permission. We estimate that there were more than 300 hundred disconnections.

The Kennedy Road community immediately held a mass meeting and prepared banners. We expected them to return today to continue the mass disconnection. Many people stayed away from work but they didn’t come. We don’t know when they will come back.

Electricity is not a luxury. It is a basic right. It is essential for children to do their homework; for safe cooking and heating; for people to charge phones, to be able participate in the national debate through electronic communication (TV discussion programmes, email etc); for lighting to keep women safe and, most of all, to stop the fires that terrorise us. It has been proven that the paraffin stoves are unsafe. Many of our members have been burnt when these stoves have exploded. They have been pulled out of the shops because they have failed but the new gel stoves are failing too. Tonight we must go back to cooking on stoves that could explode any time. Why is the government sending the police to force us to go backwards? Development was supposed to be about moving forwards.

Our children have nightmares about the fires. What must we tell them tonight? What they fear is very real. On 1 November 2007 Ma Khuzwayo, an amputee who had lived in Kennedy Road for 20 years, was killed in a shack fire.

In October 2005 we lost a young child, Mhlengi Khumalo. In August 2006 we lost an old man, Baba Dhlomo. In January this year we survived a big fire without loss of life but then in April this year we lost Bennedicta Parkies and a lady we remember only as Ntombi in another big fire.

And it is not just Kennedy Road. It is Quarry Road, it is Lacey Road, it is Jadhu Place, it is Motala Heights, it is Mayville. The terror of shack fires is everywhere and it will stay everywhere for as long as we are forced to live 13 people in one shack with candles and a paraffin stove because it has been decided that electricity is not for us and that we are not allowed to expand our shacks or to build new ones as our families grow. These fires are terrorising us all the time because the municipality took a decision in 2001 to stop electrifying shacks. These fires are their responsibility.

This attack on the people of Kennedy Road by the Municipality will probably result in more people being burnt. We will hold them directly responsible, politically and legally, if one person is burnt. We will use the access to information act again. This time we will use it to find out who gave this order. If one person is killed in a fire because of this decision we will lay a charge of culpable homicide against the official that gave the order for this attack on our community.

Many of us believe that by leaving us to be killed by diarrhoea and fire and rats while they waste millions on casinos, the themepark, stadium and the A1 Grand Prix the Municipality is trying to force us to leave our homes and to accept 'relocation' (which is really 'ruralisation') by forcing us choose between living with fires and rats and plastic bags for toilets in the city or without fires and rats and plastic bags for toilets in the relocation sites. We need our basic needs to be met in the cities where we can find work, let our children attend good schools and have access to hospitals, libraries, sport facilities and so on.

Some people have suggested that they have attacked us like this because of the national electricity crisis. If this is the case this is outrageous. Why must be the poor be paid to pay the price for government’s bad planning? The poor are the people who need the most support from government. We have the least resources. We can’t buy generators or install solar panels. Many of don’t even have enough food. The last should be put first.

Some people think that this is a punishment for taking the government to court to have the Slums Act overturned or for our victory in court were we stopped the illegal evictions in the Arnett Drive settlement. Some people have said that this is the revenge of the police who we are denouncing and suing for beating, shooting and filming themselves torturing us.

Others think that we have been attacked because the Kennedy Road settlement is where our internet and email are and the truth about our lives and the violent repression of our struggle is embarrassing the government internationally – people are even refusing awards from the government because they know the truth about what is being done to the poor in South Africa.

It is true that many people in Kennedy Road are self connected to electricity. But everywhere in South Africa the poor connect themselves. And it is not just here. Everywhere in the world - in India, in Brazil, in Turkey, in Nigeria, in Haiti, in Thailand, everywhere – people who are denied basic services by governments take them for themselves. People will always do what they have to do to survive. The solution is not to wage war on the poor. The solution is to meet the basic needs of the poor! There is no other way forward. Not in South Africa or anywhere else will the poor allow ourselves to be expelled from being citizens because we cannot afford to be consumers. The same economy and history that made the rich to be rich made us to be poor. No amount of arrests and beatings and visit by the dog unit will make people accept that the right to live in the city and the right to have electricity and the right to have safe toilets are only for the rich.

Maybe they should just put us all in a train and take us to Lindela.

On 28 September we marched on Mayor Obed Mlaba. One of our main demands was for electrification to stop the fires. Instead of being listened to we were attacked and beaten by the police. The church leaders stood up to tell the truth about what happened that day. They have also stood with us when we have mourned the people who have passed away in the fires.

But we will march against this attack very soon, people are already mobilised and the banners are ready. We will also consider all legal options to have this attack urgently stopped and reversed. We have also demanded an urgent meeting with the head of the City's electricity department. As usual they have just ignored us. We have, for a long time, also been seriously considering legal options to have the Municipality's 2001 decision to stop electrifying shack settlements declared unconstitutional.

Our struggle to be recognised as human beings continues. Our struggle to survive continues. Our struggle against a Municipality that consistently acts against us with extreme brutality in ways that are often illegal and sometimes directly criminal continues.

We ask the media and our comrades around the country and around the world to please understand that communication from Abahlali baseMjondolo will be difficult until this latest attack has been rolled back. It will not just be email that will be difficult. Even charging cell phones will not be easy. Our march today in eNkwalini was very powerful. Our clean up campaign in Kennedy Road over the weekend was very successful. Children from poor families in Motala Heights are being excluded from the school. But it will take time to put all this news out.

We ask our comrades in the churches and the unions and the democratic NGOs and in all the other organisations and movements of the poor to raise their voices loudly and clearly against the inhumanity of this municipality. We ask the municipal workers to stand together and strong in their unions and to refuse to follow orders to attack the poor, their brothers and sisters, sometimes even their co-workers and comrades.


Update: Sunday, 17 February 2008: As predicted there was a serious fire in Kennedy Road following the mass disconnections. It began in one of the shacks disconnected from electricity on Thursday.

For more information please contact:
Mzwakhe Mdlalose 0721328458
(One of the Kennedy 6, also denied electricty)

Mondli Mbiko 0731936319
(Also one of the Kennedy 6, now also denied electricty)

System Cele 0731033437
(A victim of severe police violence, now also denied electricity)

For more information on Abahlali baseMjondolo we highly recommend you visit