Printer-friendly versionSend by emailPDF version
The politics of fire

On average in South Africa over the last five years there are ten shack fires a day with someone dying in a shack fire every other day. Shack fires are not acts of God. They are the result of political choices, often at municipal level.

Shack settlements are a poor people’s solution to a lack of affordable housing, especially in cities. In eThekwini municipality, a third of the population, and around half of the African population live in shacks. This is around 920,000 people. 16.4 per cent or about one in six of all South African households live in shacks. The number of South African households living in shacks is increasing at more than double the rate of population growth and is now nearly two million.

People live in shacks for many reasons. People move to the cities from rural areas in search of work, tertiary education, and health care. People also leave formal housing to live in shacks when they can no longer afford that housing after a breadwinner dies or loses a job. They may also come to live in the shacks because they wish to escape family violence or to have their own home independently of their parents. Some people came to avoid political violence in the 1980s. However, it is hard to find work in the cities, and when people find it, they often don’t get paid enough to afford rent in formal housing. 60.7% of people in eThekwini live on less than R427 a month. Rent might be R500 a month plus bills.

Shack communities are often referred to as ‘informal’, as ‘temporary’ and as ‘camps’, but a survey in 2001 found that “over half of the household heads with informal dwellings have lived in their homes for between five and ten years and a quarter have lived in them for over eleven years”. Shack communities are not temporary. But because they are not in places that city officials call ‘suitable’, they are refused basic services and prevented from taking their proper place in the city. The lack of services is seen as a deliberate attempt to force people to leave their homes and accept relocation.


Shack settlements occupy unused land. Because the land is not legally theirs, people who live there live in fear of eviction. If they manage to stay on the land, the settlement is not allowed to expand and the shacks become very dense. Often people build very close together so that new shacks will not be noticed (and destroyed) by the Land Invasions Unit. Shack settlements in eThekwini are, on average, around six times more dense than the average for housing in the municipality as a whole. Crowded settlements may be up to 31 times the average density. In some communities the only space that is not for housing is the paths between the houses.


Fires happen a lot in the shacks and not in rich areas because shacks burn easily. If a paraffin stove is knocked over in a shack, people inside have less than a minute before the fire will kill anyone inside. Shacks burn easily because they are made of wood and plastic and cardboard. People are not allowed to formalise their shacks themselves. If someone replaces a plastic wall with a brick wall the Land Invasions Unit can destroy the whole shack.


Ask anyone from a shack settlement the causes of fires and they will tell you: candles and paraffin stoves. Open flames were the biggest single determined cause of fires in informal dwellings in 2006, and nearly half of the known causes. The eThekwini Municipality will not allow electricity in shacks. This is despite the fact that paraffin is more expensive than electricity, and hard to afford for many people. Paraffin is also a danger to health. Many shack dwellers note that paraffin fumes cause chest problems. Children in the shacks are poisoned after drinking it by accident.

Since 2001, when eThekwini's Slums Clearance Programme was announced, the municipality has refused to extend electricity to shacks as they are now considered ‘temporary’. The policy states that 'lack of funding' as the reason that electrification of informal settlements has been discontinued. However, the Municipality has continued to spend public money on non-essential projects like the theme-park and casino. The refusal to allow electrify shacks sends a clear message to shack dwellers, whose children must grow up without electricity while seeing electricity in the houses around them. How long will shack dwellers have to remain at the risk of fires while waiting for their settlements to be upgraded or developed?

Instead of electricity, the Municipality pays for Disaster Management to provide blankets and food after fires. Sometimes they pay to put shack dwellers in tents or transit camps. Sometimes they pay for funerals.

It is the duty of authorities and government to make cities safe through the provision of basic services, such as electricity. We would like to ask for a review of the decision to suspend electrification of informal settlements. If the issue is saving money; does disaster response and burials use the same money? We would like to balance the money used to respond to fires. We would like to hear them say “we are saving ten per cent at least when you die, when your shack gets burnt”. If it’s not that, we will see what it is. - S'bu Zikode, Kennedy Road, Durban

Abahlali baseMjondolo acknowledges that there is a national electricity shortage in South Africa but asks why the poor must be blamed and forced to pay the price. The big corporations run their businesses day and night using electricity for profit while the shack dwellers use it just to light and cook. The refusal to electrify shacks cannot be justified by the Municipality using the technocratic language of available resources. The refusal of electricity is a political choice that hurts the poor.


Water provision in informal settlements is inadequate. At Kennedy Road in Durban there are 8,000 people sharing five communal standpipes. At Foreman Road there are a similar number of people sharing an ablution block with one standpipe and five sinks for washing. As shack settlements do not have piped water, when there is a fire, unless it is close to the taps, it is hard for people to put it out themselves.


Shack fires are a big problem for the Fire Service; over a quarter of fires in South Africa are shack fires. They are the biggest single type of fire after bush fires. The Fire Department now comes to shack settlements. Before, shack dwellers would have to ask their neighbours in formal housing to phone the Fire Department for them. They seem to come quicker to settlements that are known for the struggle, and in some places, not so well known for the struggle, they are still much too slow.

The Fire Service is not the only Municipal service that fails to respond properly to shack communities. Ambulance and Police are also slow to respond if they know calls are from shack settlements. People die waiting for an ambulance.


Refuse collection in shack settlements is frequently poor or non-existent. This leads to unsanitary conditions that are often blamed on the residents. On 26 January this year a four month old baby Nkosi Cwaka died after being bitten by a rat at Kennedy Road. In July a three month old baby was also bitten. As uncollected refuse that leads to vermin is often burnt, the problems of fires and rats are related. Fires, and rats, are a result of the policy of local government to refuse life saving basic services to shack settlements.



In 2006, 141 people died in shack fires, nearly 60% of all deaths in fires and more than deaths in all other types of fires combined. Data from the Medical Research Council suggests that the number of deaths is higher still. Between 2001 and 2005, a total of 1003 people died in shack fires in South Africa’s five largest cities; an average of 200 deaths a year in these cities alone.

The Kennedy Road settlement has been badly affected by fires, causing a number of deaths. Mhlengi Khumalo, who was one year old, died in a fire in October 2005, the third fire that month. In August 2006 Zithulele Dhlomo was killed in a fire when the plastic sheeting roof of his shack melted. In April 2007 three people, Ephraime Phulungula, Nobuhle’s sister Ntombi and Ben Mhlakwana, a mother of two, died in a fire that left 100 families homeless. In October 2007 Mamu-Khuzwayo died in a fire that destroyed the shack where she lived with 12 other people.


Thousands of people are made homeless every year after shack fires. For many of them it will not be the first time. Often people will stay with friends or family in the area, or in other areas. They may also stay at their work places. If a fire happens at night when people are sleeping, or they are not in the area, many people are left with only the clothes they are wearing. When people store money in jondolos, years of savings may be wiped out by a fire. A recent fire in Motala Heights destroyed one woman’s savings of over R15,000. Personal items (such as photos) are also lost and can never be replaced by second-hand clothes, blankets and tinned food.


Shack dwellers' livelihoods are often precarious. When fires burn peoples’ homes and belongings they are less able to earn a living. Time at work will be lost. Tools or stock are destroyed. Informal businesses are lost. Matric, diplomas and training certificates, as well as ID books (needed to access state healthcare and grants) are also burnt, requiring a lengthy and expensive process of replacement. Student’s books and uniforms have also been destroyed – affecting attendance and grades.


Fires terrorise communities in the shacks. Shack dwellers go to sleep every night knowing that they may be woken by shouting and need to flee for their lives. People may leave their houses everyday wondering whether their home will still be there when they come back.



We ask them who told them to come here and disconnect the lights and so. [...] They never tell us where they came from or full information. The security had guns and they stop us from asking. If we ask them what they doing or who told them to come they say they going to shoot us or going to kick us – Bongo Dlamini, Motala Heights

Since 2001, electrification has not only been discontinued – the municipality has pursued a dangerous campaign of armed de-electrification against shack settlements. This is often accompanied by police violence and theft. In some cases this tactic seems to be a response to mobilisation by Abahlali. The day after Abahlali announced that they would be challenging the legality of the KwaZulu Natal Slums Act in court the Municipality arrived with 'heavily armed' police and a dog unit at Kennedy Road. They made over 300 disconnections and destroyed the cables. In November 2007 when Abahlali marched on Mayor Mlaba demanding electrification to stop fires, peaceful protesters were attacked and beaten by police and 14 people arrested. At the eMagwaveni settlement in Tongaat, electricity connections have led to police violence, including ‘a police shooting at a meeting held by residents to address the issue of electricity’. Pemary Ridge also faces tension with police over electricity. Philani Zungu, an Abahlali activist who lives at Pemary Ridge has been arrested and charged for unlawful connections. He has not denied the charges, but points out that Pemary Ridge has not burnt and demands to be judged on that fact. When access to electricity is criminalised, the very poor have to break the law to keep their communities safe. People that take these risks on behalf of their communities are considered heroes. It is the eThekwini Municipality’s policy to deny electricity to people living in shacks that is considered criminal.


When a shack burns down in some areas, nothing happens. After years of struggle the Fire Department has started to attend shack fires. The media has also started to attend. However, people denied adequate services and emergency response also complain of neglect by the politicians who are supposed to represent them. In many areas, people in shacks frequently complain that their councillors are not interested in them, and only come to the settlements at election time, with more empty promises. Many shack dwellers feel betrayed and discriminated against by local government and politicians who have exploited their votes and naturalised their poverty.

'They promise so many times to build the houses, but they failed to do that. I don’t trust the municipality or Department of Housing. I think they don’t care about the people in shacks. They think if you staying in shacks you not same like others. They think we are short-minded because we are staying in this place. They think it our right to stay here, we think it’s our right to stay in rooms like others, like whites, like coloureds, like Indians, but the municipality don’t think like us. They think we deserve to stay like this. They think we deserve to die like this.' - Lungile Mgube, Kennedy Road, Durban


When there is a fire the victims of that fire are frequently blamed for the fire. Alcohol is often also mentioned as a contributory factor. However, people who live in middle class houses also drink alcohol, also knock things over and also have accidents. eThekwini Municipality’s refusal to electrify shacks, or provide adequate housing,is the reason why a small accident in a house just a small accident, while a small accident in a shack leaves hundreds of people homeless. It is insulting to assume people need to be educated to use candles and stoves while the causes of fires are lack of electricity and lack of housing.


Shack fires are usually treated as ‘natural disasters’ and eThekwini Disaster Management is directed to provide short-term relief; basic blankets and food. However, many shack dwellers are very critical of the Municipality responding to shack fires as disasters but not taking any steps to mitigate the problem and prevent them from happening.

At Ash Road, Pietermaritzburg, after a fire on 9 June, where 20 shacks were burnt, the Municipality has refused to let those left homeless rebuild their shacks. They are still sleeping in cold, wet, overcrowded tents. One person has already died of pneumonia. They are forced to remain in the tents while emergency accommodation is being built. In this situation, the provision of supplies from Disaster Management is regarded as an insult.

They just provided tent, 10kg rice, no stove – how can you cook it with no stove? Rice without stove is useless! Tents, mattress, food, no stove. They are just decorating material. - Flo, Ash Road, Pietermaritzburg


Since the Slums Clearance Programme was adopted in 2001 the municipality has prohibited the rebuilding of shacks after fires. Although residents at Kennedy Road started clearing the debris and rebuilding before the ground had cooled, it was only to watch as their partially rebuilt houses were bulldozed by the Land Invasions Unit under armed police protection two days later.

Currently Msunduzi Municipality is spending R4.3m building temporary accommodation for residents of Ash Road settlement displaced by fire and floods. 200 people were made homeless by flooding at the beginning of the year. They were refused permission to rebuild their shacks and were forced to stay in tents for six months while the Municipality arranged tin shacks. Residents are worried that the Municipality is using disasters to remove people, now or later, by forcing them into purpose built temporary accommodation. The Municipality’s response to residents expressing their concerns over this accommodation has been removal of the community’s toilets and taps.

At Jadhu Place on April 20 2008, 300 shacks burnt down, leaving 1,500 people homeless. The municipality refused to allow people to rebuild and instead provided tents. People in the settlement were forced to stay in tents, or with friends or family in the area (or elsewhere) for weeks while the municipality began building standardised tin shacks, known by residents as a ‘transit camp’. The municipality is still building the transit camp at Jadhu Place and has reportedly said that they are going to place all the people there in tin shacks. However, residents are now unhappy because the lack of communication from the municipality leads them to fear that there are no plans to move them out of their new (inadequate) temporary accommodation. They note that residents at Mayville who were also moved into tin shacks after a fire and told that it was a temporary measure but have now been there about two years.


At Kennedy Road, people decided to refuse the transit camp and to rebuild themselves. After a while the City supported them with building materials and the rebuild has been fully completed in around a week. The provision of materials to Kennedy Road may be a response to Abahlali’s mobilisation, but rebuilding on site is also now identified by municipal officials as the preferred option after a shack fire. There may also now be a move towards provision of materials for shack settlements after fires. Provision of materials for rebuilding is something that the Municipality should now replicate for all communities after fires. The gain won by Kennedy Road should now be claimed by all settlements.

DEMANDS: In response to the fires, Abahlali is demanding:

- Immediate provision of taps, hoses and fire extinguishers;

- Electrification by the city and support for electrification by residents;

- Democratic upgrading of all settlements;

- Good service from the fire brigade and adequate supply of building materials after fires;

- Compensation from the City for all the people that have suffered in the fires from 2001 until now.

* Matt Birkinshaw did his MA on Abahlali baseMjondolo at the University of London and then worked, living in a squat to save money, to be able to come and spend some months doing solidarity work with Abahlali baseMjondolo in Durban. He has lived in the Kennedy Road settlement (where his first shack was lost in a fire) and the Foreman Road settlement. After he had been living in Kennedy Road for two weeks a meeting was held to see how Matt could best contribute and he was asked to produce a report on shack fires. In two weeks time he will be leaving for Cape Town to do solidarity work with Abahlali baseMjondolo's sister organisation, the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign

* Full report for Abahlali baseMjondolo, South African Shack Dwellers' Movement available at or by clicking here

* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at