Shack fires symptom of landlessness and housing backlog

Six Plettenberg Bay families were affected when fire broke out in the Qolweni informal settlement flattening four shacks
GUTTED: Six Plettenberg Bay families were affected when fire broke out in the Qolweni informal settlement flattening four shacks

This past Saturday, the community of Qolweni informal settlement in Plettenberg Bay was devastated by a fire that destroyed four shacks, leaving six families homeless.

The fire was one of several that have been reported across the Garden Route and Eastern Cape over the past few months.

In November last year, shack fires in Kariega and Mzamomhle township in Buffalo City left at least six people dead — including three children.

More than 60 shacks were destroyed, resulting in the displacement of more than 160 families.

In February this year, a shack fire in Komani claimed the lives of two pensioners.

Just a month ago, a shack fire in the Kingstown informal settlement in Despatch claimed the life of a two-year-old child.

Numerous people have died in several shack fires across SA, with thousands displaced in the informal settlements of Dunoon, Diepsloot, Khayelitsha, Masiphumelele, Philippi and several others.

Informal settlements in SA are prone to devastating fires.

This has been worsened by the urban sprawl in cities such as Johannesburg, Cape Town, Ekurhuleni and Gqeberha.

According to the Emergency Management Services, more than 1,500 shack fires were reported in the City of Joburg between 2022 and 2023, while 153 shack fires were reported in the City of Tshwane for the same period.

In May last year, the MEC of infrastructure in the Western Cape, Tertuis Simmers, revealed that about 9,000 shack fires were recorded between 2019 and 2021 in that province.

Almost 17 000 people were left displaced, while more than 60 people were killed.

As the winter season draws closer, many more shack fires will happen.

This has not only been the pattern throughout history, but the prevailing material conditions with regards to load-shedding make this inevitable.

With load-shedding consistently in place in the higher stages, and now a daily occurrence, the dependence on alternative energy in the form of primus stoves and even open-flame methods, particularly for poor households, is increasing.

Furthermore, the ongoing water insecurity challenges across the country mean that communities and emergency services do not have sufficient water resources when fires do break out.

Compounded by the unplanned growth of informal settlements and that shacks are built close together, shack fires wreak havoc in our country.

But a deeper underlying issue is the lack of land and housing that still persist in the democratic dispensation.

Guidelines to improve fire safety in informal settlements, including fire safety interventions for backyarders, can only go so far.

The real intervention that is needed is for land to be availed for low-cost housing to be built.

Government is empowered by the constitution to expropriate land for the public good, but it isn’t using this provision, despite the fact that housing is a public good and a human right.

Furthermore, the government must conduct an extensive audit on its own property stock.

It is a travesty that such an audit has never been conducted in SA.

The implication is that all tiers of government do not actually know how much property stock they have control of.

In cities like Johannesburg, Tshwane and Ekurhuleni, all of which are located in Gauteng, the most populous and urbanised province in our country, this amounts to hundreds of buildings.

Options to convert these unused, underused and illegally rented-out properties into low-cost housing to reduce the housing backlog the country is faced with must be explored.

This is the most logical intervention as areas where population growth is increasing must construct high-rise buildings to maximise space.

This will alleviate the impact on the strained fiscus while also resolving an urgent challenge of our time.

If these interventions are not prioritised, people will continue to die.


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