Financial Mail - - EDITORIALS -

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.

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