WANTED: POLITICAL WILL TO FIGHT FIRES
The City of Cape Town boasts that its fire and rescue service dates all the way back to 1845. Back then, much of the country didn’t even have established municipalities or towns.
But it has become depressingly clear that Cape Town’s long history of fighting fires has still not equipped the city to deal with the blazes that have become a routine feature of life in its informal, impoverished and squatter settlements.
Last week, fires raged with unrelenting force across the shackland of Khayelitsha, killing at least one person. Khayelitsha is home to more than 400,000 people, many of whom live in shacks with no running water and no reticulation. But when the fires destroyed 500 of their homes last week, the rather simple prospect of a fire engine coming to their rescue did not even arise in the minds of many of the residents.
Stats SA says each shack in Khayelitsha has
3.3 occupants on average. That means in last week’s disaster, about 1,500 people lost their homes. It’s important to remember, too, that the average household in the township has a monthly income of just R3,200 — which would make it hard to rebuild what was lost in the fire.
Yet, the entire city’s population of more than 3.7-million people is served by 30 fire stations — and only three of those are in the heavily populated townships of Gugulethu and Khayelitsha.
Even if one of those fire trucks were to arrive, there’d be another problem: less than half the residents of Khayelitsha live in formal dwellings; the rest are squeezed into shacks built right next to each other. This lack of planning means a fire truck would not be able to navigate the paths.
It’s probably true that those 30 fire stations in the city are stretched beyond their limits already, having to contend with densely populated squatter camps without the necessary infrastructure. But a central part of the problem is the lack of proper housing for everyone who needs it.
Twenty years ago, the entire Western Cape was home to just under two million people. But, since then, Cape Town has exploded. Every year, 100,000 immigrants arrive, many eager to escape the poverty of the neighbouring Eastern Cape. This has crunched the city’s infrastructure.
But it evidently hasn’t put in place a feasible plan to deal with the influx — and the deadly fires are one of the tragic consequences of this.
The city needs better ways to plan for these sorts of disasters. True, lack of housing and infrastructure takes time to resolve — but there are still many useful interventions that can be employed in the short term to save lives. For a start, the city would do well to build more fire stations in the formal part of the township.
Second, the provincial government, under local government MEC Anton Bredell, has already shown the way to cheaper and swift innovations to save lives. Last year it piloted a project that installed more than 2,000 smoke-detector alarms in the shacks of Wallacedene PRA informal settlement in Kraaifontein. At a cost of R150 apiece, there is no reason why these could not be installed elsewhere in the country. Impressively, these devices have no running costs as they work on batteries that last 10 years without charging.
Almost every week, there is some new horror tale of more deaths in shack fires across the country. Last month, six children younger than seven died in fires in Alexandra and Kagiso — and this still doesn’t seem to have prompted greater urgency from the authorities. There is no reason why the lives of people in some of the country’s poorest areas should be viewed as dispensable. And, like much of SA’S problems, it can be fixed — it just needs the political will.