A story by Jan Bornman and James Oatway
Shack fires are a near daily reality for those living in many of South Africa’s most impoverished areas. They are a terrifying – and deadly – expression of the scale of the country’s escalating social crisis.
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A massive plume of black smoke can be seen from the M1 motorway as it rises high above the inner city of Johannesburg. It has almost become a familiar part of the city’s landscape in wintertime.
But at the bottom of this pillar of smoke, people’s noses and mouths are filled with acrid fumes. Their eyes are burning as the thick cloud makes it hard to see and even harder to breathe. Despite this, they are desperately rushing to their homes to carry out as many of their possessions as they can before the flames engulf everything.
Young men are running around carrying buckets of water and passing them to the brave souls who climb atop buildings trying to put out the fire, which by now has enveloped dozens of shacks. Firefighters are yet to arrive.
Some families have carried out their most valuable and sentimental possessions – fridges with baby photos stuck to them, cabinets with family portraits, beds, kitchenware and other appliances. Sitting among one such heap of possessions is a distraught woman who is being consoled by two others.
Her name is Tina Baloyi. Neighbours phoned her earlier in the morning telling her about the fire that had already destroyed some of the structures near her house in Crown Mines, south of the inner city.
She rushed home to find her house already on fire. Baloyi broke down thinking she had lost everything as she was unable to make it there in time. But kind neighbours managed to save most of her possessions. She was overcome by shock, fear and relief.
Seared in his mind
Kamoelo Machabe, 25, remembers watching television in the small room he shared with his girlfriend and their infant daughter when he smelt something burning. At first he thought it could be a cable or one of the appliances in their room. “I checked the appliances, I checked my computer, but it wasn’t mine,” Machabe said during an interview a month later, looking back on the fire that destroyed at least 40 shacks and a number of buildings in Crown Mines.
Living in a room next to one of a number of old mining houses, Machabe thought it might be rubbish being burnt in the shack settlement that has grown behind these brick homes. But when the smell became stronger, he knew something was wrong. As he opened his door and peered outside, he heard the scurrying and clamouring of his neighbours as they rushed to put out a fire that was already destroying the shack where it had started.
“People were shouting, ‘There is a fire here! Come help!’” Machabe said. He initially tried to help some men break down a wall of the shack to put the fire out and prevent it from spreading, but they were unsuccessful. The flames soon engulfed other shacks made from corrugated iron, wooden beams and flattened cardboard boxes used for insulation.
In those moments, his only thoughts were to get back to his room and get his girlfriend and their daughter outside and as far away from the fire as possible. At no point did he think the flames would reach his home. “I ran here,” he said, sitting in his rebuilt room, “and took my daughter and girlfriend out. It skipped my mind to run back and get my passport, external hard drives and other important things.”
After getting his young family out unharmed and a safe distance away, Machabe again went to help the other men fight the fire that was spreading quickly to other shacks nearby and would soon rip through some of the adjacent brick structures as well. Meanwhile, his room burnt down.
A devastating loss
It took a while before the news sank in that he and his family had lost everything they owned, so Machabe continued his efforts to put out the fire. But eventually it did get through and he just stood there watching the havoc. “This is all I have, man. All our stuff is in that room. The clothes I am wearing now are all I’ve got,” he said about what he was thinking at the time.
Machabe and his girlfriend managed to rebuild and furnish their room using up most of his savings. They moved back in with clothes and other essentials donated to them. “We pretty much lost everything. I had a laptop, my external hard drives with all my memories [on them] and everything else,” he said. “[For a while] I was trying to run away from the fact that I lost everything. It’s just painful to know I can’t replace certain things – all those memories and sentimental things.”
Machabe suspects that the fire was started by a “bomb” – a kettle element connected to a power plug and dropped in a basin to heat water. But he cannot be sure. The shack settlement in Crown Mines has lots of wires dangling low from overhead power cables, with residents often having to duck underneath them as they make their way through the settlement.
When these self-made connections are not done in a careful and well-organised way, they can also lead to fires, while open flames from sources such as candles and gas stoves are a main contributor to shacks burning down.
In impoverished urban areas, shack fires are a common sight, and they increase exponentially in the colder winter months. There are on average between 15 and 30 fires in shack settlements every day in South Africa. The City of Johannesburg’s emergency services have responded to nearly 700 fires in shack settlements since the beginning of January 2020. These fires are seldomly regarded as a crisis in parts of the city where the middle class and rich are secure in brick and mortar homes.
In impoverished urban areas, shack fires are a common sight, and they increase exponentially in the colder winter months.
Economic historians Eric Jones and Lionel Frost have pointed out the gap that had opened up between population growth and the incidence of fire damage in western European and North American cities during the previous century. Despite urban populations rising, the number of urban fires had declined throughout this period. Jones and Frost attributed these changes to an increased investment in fire-resistant materials such as brick and stone, and in North America especially, to larger house lots.
Frost’s work followed this with a contrasting analysis of what he called “Asian cities”, characterised by the use of perishable building materials. He argued this was a product of what he called a “prisoner’s dilemma” – a situation where individual property holders considered the investment in fireproof materials too large because it lacked the guarantee that others around them would do the same.
Although Jones and Frost’s work was produced more than two decades ago and looked at mostly European and North American cities, it is still relevant to the realities faced by many impoverished people around the globe, but even more so in the Global South.
A 2008 report by shack-dwellers’ movement Abahlali baseMjondolo pinned the existence of shack fires in South Africa on the critical shortage of affordable housing.
“Shack fires are not acts of God. They are the result of political choices, often at municipal level,” the report read. It highlighted local governments’ apparent policy of forcing shack dwellers to live in “camps” and the exclusion of shacks from municipal and city plans.
“Because of these policies, fires are increasingly frequent in shack settlements and shack dwellers face the continual threat of death, injury, homelessness and loss of livelihood. If fires are acknowledged at all by local government, they may be blamed on their victims, treated as natural disasters, or used as an opportunity to replace shacks with more vulnerable government structures such as tents or tin [corrugated iron] shacks,” the report said.
Danger in density
Much of the rapid increase in shack settlements in many parts of South Africa stems from the migration of people from rural to urban areas looking for work, education and healthcare. This is not unique to South Africa, but part of a larger global phenomenon of growing inequality and concentrated poverty in cities.
Looking at the South African context, Richard Walls, a professor of structural and fire engineering at Stellenbosch University, says there is no easy solution to fix shack fires. “Ultimately, I think we all know what the solution is. It is to get formal housing. You have too many people in combustible dwellings, all on top of each other with lots of ignition sources … In theory, if we could provide everyone with brick homes, the problem would pretty much disappear,” Walls said.
There are some obvious steps that could be taken to reduce shack fires. But one of the biggest hurdles, other than a lack of political will, is the number of those who would need to agree on how to improve fire safety in shack settlements.
“One of the reasons it is such an ongoing challenge is because there’s so many role players,” said Walls. “Often, if it is the community on their own, they can make good progress. But still, they don’t have the resources. The fire department, if they try to impose things on the community without getting the community involved, they are fighting a losing battle.”
“We want to be treated with dignity. I don’t like when the government is calling us thieves like we are thieves of the land … We are not taking back the land, we are just crying for homes.”
Walls says shack fires in settlements are a societal failure. “In South Africa, yes, there is the roots in apartheid. But moving forward it’s also an economic and policy problem. If you had a good economy with a fairer distribution of wealth, people would have money to buy homes and move out, and the problem would eventually go away.
“It is a symptom of poverty. In our urban landscape, these settlements spring up and they get dense, fast. I’m sure you’ve seen how dense some settlements are. If a fire gets going, you can have the best fire department around and they’re going to struggle … At the end of the day, fire is a societal problem.”
Melita Ngcobo, chairperson of the Vusimuzi branch of Abahlali baseMjondolo in Tembisa, northeast of Johannesburg, says corruption by government officials also plays a big role in the housing problems that impoverished people experience.
“The problem with the brick and cement houses is housing corruption. People are supposed to be moved to many places where new RDPs are built, but the problem is the government officials – they sold our houses. At the end of the day, we don’t have those houses and we end up going back to live in shacks,” Ngcobo said.
“If we occupy land, it is a cry for help that I am tired, I am homeless, I am landless and I am tired of being a tenant. I cannot stay all the time being a tenant in someone’s home,” she said. “When we occupy, it is a cry to the municipality to see that we are homeless and jobless.
“We want to be treated with dignity. I don’t like when the government is calling us thieves like we are thieves of the land … We are not taking back the land, we are just crying for homes.”
In Booysens shack settlement, south of Johannesburg’s inner city, shack dwellers are used to fires and having to rebuild their homes. Apart from the most recent fire in July, Freedom Nonkululeko Gwangqa, 43, who lives with her daughter and grandson, recounts at least four other devastating fires since May 2019.
The settlement, sandwiched between a big road, a railway line and industrial buildings, is dense. Smaller, more makeshift homes are built almost on top of each other. During the most recent fire, firefighters from the City’s emergency services could not get close enough to extinguish parts of the blaze.
Gwangqa says it is inevitable that there will be more fires in the community. Soon after the latest one, with the ground still thick with ash, residents were rebuilding their homes on the same stands where they had stood. Many were using wooden frames and corrugated iron they had barely managed to save from the flames. Even now, some of the shared portable toilets that melted from the heat of the fire and are yet to be replaced.
“We want the government to take us out of here. This place is dangerous and it is not proper,” Gwangqa said. “They promised us many years ago that we will get proper houses and electricity and toilets.”
Besides the damage to homes, Gwangqa says it is traumatic for the community to experience fire after fire and still continue living in the same place.
“Our children are now traumatised because of the fire. You can’t sleep properly because you are always worried about the next fire. I lost my ID in a previous fire. I still don’t have a new ID. People lost everything. They lost clothes, documents, everything,” she said.
Having lost everything he owned other than the clothes he was wearing when his home burnt down is something Bobby Thabo Lojane, 75, experienced recently after a massive fire gutted at least 60 homes in Slovo Park in Coronationville, west of Johannesburg.
The source of the fire is unknown, but residents suspect that it might have been caused by an electrical fault from one of the self-organised connections in the settlement.
“I lost everything in the fire,” Lojane said. “I wasn’t here when the fire broke out, but I was told to come back because the fire was getting close to my house. The fire was so big when I got here. It was dark, almost like the night, with all the smoke.”
Lojane is speaking from a semi-built structure made from burnt sheets of corrugated iron on the stand where his house used to be. The only thing he now has inside is a white leather couch covered in dust and ash that was donated to him.
While his neighbours are rebuilding their homes, many reusing materials salvaged from the fire, Lojane is staying with someone else in the area as he tries to work out how to afford finishing his house. He hopes that some family members who live in Meadowlands, Soweto, will be able to provide some help as well.
“This is very difficult. I don’t know how we will rebuild because we are not getting a lot of help and some of us lost everything,” he said.
Bronwen Jones, founder and director of Children of Fire, an organisation that helps children who have suffered severe burns, has been aiding those who lost all their possessions in the fire in Slovo Park. Lojane received donated clothes from her.
Through her work, Jones has also come to see the devastating impact that fires have on those living in shack settlements. Besides ruining lives and destroying livelihoods, the worst of the fires also take lives and leave lifelong scars on those who are lucky to escape. Two of her newest intakes at Children of Fire are Musa Mkhize, 4, and Letty Ndimande, 3.
Both children were left with horrific burn wounds after the shack they were in caught alight in April 2020. Musa’s mother, who was looking after the two children, later died in hospital because of her wounds and other complications.
“Musa and Letty were living in the same shack in an informal settlement near Lenasia,” Jones explained. “Musa’s mother refilled a paraffin stove when it was already alight and then it exploded and the whole shack caught fire. [She] was taken to [Chris Hani] Baragwanath hospital. She ultimately got a pulmonary embolism and she died.”
Jones says taking care of children who are victims of fire is difficult work because, for example, “people use the term ‘elective surgery’. But if your hand is going to be deformed forever, it is not bloody elective surgery. It is essential and it needs to be done now,” she said.
“The most difficult injuries are face and hands because you use them for social interaction and you use your hands for everything [you do] independent[ly], from brushing your teeth to buttoning up your shirt and tying your shoelaces. The delay, particularly in Musa’s case, will probably be to his lifelong detriment.”
Jones says one of the hardest things for young children injured in fires is living with the stigma attached to their scars. “People often treat them as if they are witless instead of the fact that they are just scarred.”
Despite these challenges, deepened by the added pressures the Covid-19 pandemic has brought, Jones says the children are in good hands at Children of Fire and get proper nutrition while receiving an education. “That ongoing stimulation is just brilliant for kids as they are growing – good food, good exercise and so on. Most will, however, go back to where they came from. Sometimes it’s complicated because they don’t have any immediate family alive and social workers [are] very, very tardy dealing with that,” she said.
What can be done to cut down on shack fires? There are some practical measures that can be used to minimise the risks, Walls says, apart from fundamental things such as building homes from non-combustible materials and having more space between them.
“There’s not just one solution,” he warned. “You need active fire protection so you can both put fires out and know that they are there in the first place. You need passive protection – ask yourself: how do we stop the fire from spreading to other homes and rather contain it within certain areas? Also, we need to reduce the risk of ignition through preventative measures.
“One intervention on its own is not going to solve the problem. Because, for instance, we may have very good interventions to try to prevent fires from starting in the first place, such as better electrical wiring. A lot of fires probably start from wiring problems and illegal wiring and bad electrical devices. So if we put a lot of effort into that, let’s say now we have cut down the number of fires,” he explained.
“But a fire will still occur … so it’s an integrated approach requiring active, passive and risk-of-ignition solutions. You need community awareness, response and engagement.”
As part of that community response and engagement, Thapelo Mohapi, spokesperson for Abahlali baseMjondolo and a victim of a recent shack fire in which he lost everything, says communities need to lead efforts to implement any measures that can be taken.
“[Shack fires] can be prevented, but we have the need for communities to sit and have their own reblocking [to separate different areas] so that when a fire takes place it does not affect the entire informal settlement.
“Sometimes, because of the scarcity of land, people build shacks close to one another,” he explained. “So when a neighbour is affected by the fire, the entire shack [area] is then gutted … So that is the first step. Reblocking is very important, but it must be community-driven so that people can plan their own settlements.
“The problem is when the government interferes and tries to do reblocking that suits them. But there needs to be a democratic process where the government asks the communities how do we then prevent fire and, if a fire breaks out in one house, how can we make sure it does not affect the whole community?”
Mohapi emphasises the need for these initiatives to be driven by the residents rather than the government. He says when state institutions lead such initiatives they tend to impose their ideas on people, for example, building smaller homes for bigger families and ignoring their needs.
“In order to prevent fire, the government should provide decent housing for the poor. The government is to be blamed here, corruption is to be blamed here. When houses are being built, they are not being allocated to the poorest of the poor,” he said.
“I think the other way around this is actually for the government to provide land for the people. In other words, if I, for instance, had the guarantee that the land where I was building my shack on had a title deed or [I had] ownership of the land, I would have built a structure that was proper.
“People build informal settlements with planks and other things because they are not guaranteed the land. So they might be evicted at any time or be told that they will be relocated to other places,” Mohapi said. “So people end up building in the manner they are building as a result of that.”
Story: Jan Bornman
Visuals: James Oatway
Development: Aragorn Eloff