Shack Fire Summit, Kennedy Road settlement, 22 September 2008

A statement by the Poor People's Alliance following the shack fire summit called by Abahlali baseMjondolo

Submitted by red jack on October 16, 2008

Wednesday, 08 October 2008

Abahlali baseMjondolo (KwaZulu-Natal & Western Cape)
Landless Peoples' Movement (KwaZulu-Natal & Gauteng)
Rural Network (KwaZulu-Natal)
Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign (Western Cape)
South African National Civics Organisations (eThekwini region)

The City Wide Shack Fire Summit called by Abahlali baseMjondolo was initially scheduled to be held in the Foreman Road settlement. It had to be moved to the Kennedy Road settlement after the Foreman Road settlement burnt down on 13 September leaving thousands destitute and homeless and Thembelani Khweshube dead.

The Summit was attended by shack dwellers from all over Durban and from various organisations. It was also attended by Abahlali baseMjondolo members in Cape Town and representatives from our comrades in the Poor People's Alliance - the Landless Peoples' Movement, the Rural Network and the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign. SANCO also participated in the event. This statement was written and approved by the four organisations united in the Poor Peoples' alliance and is also supported by the eThekwini region of SANCO.

A State of Emergency

Statement after the City Wide Shack Fire Summit on 22 September

The day before the shack fire summit we held a mass prayer to mourn all those who have died in the fires. We mourned our comrades from Kennedy Road, Foreman Road, Cato Crest, Isipingo, Clairwood, Sea Cow Lake, Kimberly, Ermelo, Cape Town and Johannesburg.

Our struggles start from the fact that we are all human beings. We cannot allow the experts to define us, we define our own status. We define the situation that we face and how we choose to face it. Our summit was held so that we could define ourselves and our situation and then begin an open and public discussion amongst all shack dwellers' organisations on how to defend ourselves and our communities from the fires.

The Abahlali baseMjondolo report on shack fires shows that there is an average of ten shack fires a day in South Africa and a fire almost every other day in Durban. Last year 20 people died in shack fires in Durban alone. In the five biggest cities in South Africa an average of 200 people die in shack fires every year.

If the rich were being burnt like this in their suburbs it would be taken as a crisis for the whole country. But because it is the poor that are suffering this crisis is taken as if there is no crisis, as if it is just normal for poor people to burn.

People loose everything in shack fires. They loose money, clothes, documents, medicine - everything. Children that loose uniforms can't go to school. People that lose ID books can't get grants and pensions. People that lose HIV treatment are sometimes considered to have defaulted. People sometimes lose jobs and have to drop out of studies. Children are haunted by nightmares. They can no longer feel safe in their own homes. Sometimes parents have to move to outbuildings that they can't afford or to accept relocation to the human dumping grounds outside the cities because their children are too scared to sleep in the shacks.

We are human beings. Our lives matter as much as anyone else's life. Our communities matter as much as anyone else's community. Therefore these fires are a crisis for the whole country. They are a state of emergency. They must be stopped by all means possible. If the government and the rich are not willing to recognise our humanity and continue to fail to recognise that shack fires are a crisis for the whole country then we will have to force the government and the rich to recognise the humanity of the poor.

The causes of the fires are clear. The fires happen because shack dwellers live close together in small shacks made of plastic and cardboard and because we are forced to rely on candles for light, paraffin stoves for cooking and braziers for warmth.

The politicians who say that we burn because we are drunk or that we burn because we set the fires ourselves so that we can be prioritised for housing insult our intelligence and dignity. Their failure to spend even one week living in a shack so that they can start to learn something about the conditions in which the poor must live indicates their contempt for the poor. It is clear that they know nothing about our lives and communities. You cannot be pro-poor if you are not with the poor – finished and klaar.

We reject those government officials like the notorious Lennox Mabaso who say that the solution to shack fires is that shack dwellers must be educated. This is no different to those who say that the poor get cholera because they have not been educated to wash their hands when of course the real problem is that the poor do not have access to safe water. The solution to shack fires is not the education of the poor – it is the education of the rich so that they can learn to recognise the humanity of the poor. The long term solution to shack fires is land and housing for all. The short term solution is fire hydrants, access roads for fire trucks, more taps, better building materials, fire breaks in the settlements, good support from the fire brigade and, most of all, electricity.

Fires are also a major problem in the rural areas. They are just one of the many problems that come from the fact that democracy has not reached the rural areas.

The situation is different in different cities. In Durban shack dwellers now, after a long struggle and many arrests and beatings, get very good service from the fire brigade. In Johannesburg they must still fight the fires on their own. In Durban shack dwellers have been denied legal access to electricity since 2001 when a decision was taken to stop the electrification of shacks. In Cape Town and Johannesburg shacks are still electrified.

But everywhere all communities connect themselves to electricity in order to ensure their own safety. Everywhere the government considers community organised connections to be illegal. Everywhere they send in the police to de-electrify people. Often this is violent and people are arrested. Everywhere people just reconnect themselves the next day. It is clear that if the government cannot or will not give poor people the electricity that they need to be safe then the poor will have to do it themselves. It is clear that the people are already doing this and that they will not stop until the government gives them electricity.

It is clear that the 2001 decision to stop electrifying shacks in Durban is unacceptable and completely inhuman. Many people feel that shack dwellers are deliberately being left to burn in Durban so that they will be forced to accept relocation to the human dumping grounds outside the city.

Everywhere people are connecting themselves to taps in order to ensure their own safety and to respect their time, especially women's time. People will not stop this unless the government gives them enough taps.

In Durban Abahlali baseMjondolo is negotiating with the Municipality to get access roads and fire hydrants. These negotiations are very much welcome but we need these things for everyone.

In Cape Town people have often got building materials from the government after fires. In Durban this happened for the first time after the Kennedy Road fire. All settlements need to get good quality building materials after fires.

Everywhere it is clear that shack fires, and floods too, are being misused to force people into the notorious 'transit camps' or 'temporary relocation areas'. This started in Joe Slovo in Cape Town but now it is happening everywhere. This is a way of exploiting the suffering of the poor, a suffering caused by government neglect, in order to force the poor out of the cities. It must be resisted.

Everywhere government comes with top down ready made solutions after fires. This is unacceptable. Each community must decide its own future. Councillors do not speak for communities. Communities must be able to think and speak for themselves.

In Durban there are many reports that support provided to communities after fires are being allocated on a party political basis. This is not democracy. This is unacceptable.

It was noted that the eThekwini Municipality failed to attend the City Wide Shack Fire Summit. It is clear that they are not yet serious about shack fires or democratic development.

It was noted that some big and very rich NGOs that like to talk for the poor but are very scared to talk to the poor failed to attend the City Wide Shack Fire Summit. It is clear that they are not really serious about partnerships with democratic poor people's organisations that are only accountable to their members.

It was noted that everywhere the councillors are undermining the people and doing nothing but trying to build their own power over the people.

It was noted that some left NGOs and academics continue to behave like councillors.

It was noted that some pastors like power too much.

It was noted that middle class people also drink and knock things over.

It was noted that the government will have to be forced to recognise the humanity of the poor.

It was noted that capitalism is a war on the poor.

It was noted that a living solidarity between poor people's movements can strengthen the struggle of the poor.

Two suggestions were made for a way forward:

1. All of the movement present organise one march every month until the fires are recognised as an emergency and the settlements electrified.

2. All of the movements present engaged on a country wide defiance campaign in which people openly connect to electricity and taps in the name of dignity, safety and justice until the government admits that the poor are also human beings and should also be safe from fire.

Delegates will take these suggestions back to their movements where they will be discussed. Once everyone has had a chance to discuss these proposals, or if necessary to suggest new ones that should be discussed further, the way forward will be announced.

For more information and comment please contact:

Abahlali baseMjondolo: S'bu Zikode – 083 547 0474
Landless People's Movement: Maureen Mnisi – 082 337 4514
Rural Network: Rev. Mavuso – 072 279 2634
SANCO (eThekwini Region): Mabuyi Nhlumayo - 083 317 5811
Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign: Ashraf Casiem – 076 186 1408


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