The Solution to Shack Fires is Electrification, Not More Training

By Richard Pithouse · 12 Aug 2008

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Despite all the confident government talk about ‘eradicating slums by 2014’ the fact is that the number of people living in shacks is growing. Recent statistics show that the percentage of the population living in shacks has now increased to 15.4 percent from 12.7 percent in 2002.

South Africa is not the first country where the government has simply announced a date by which shacks will be ‘eradicated’. In 1968 the military dictatorship in Brazil declared that shacks would be ‘eradicated’ by 1976. When attempts to achieve this goal by forcibly relocating people to peripheral housing developments were resisted the dictatorship resorted to trying to burn people out of their shacks. Things have not degenerated to this level in South Africa. But many municipalities, with eThekwini and Erkhuleni being amongst the worst, are trying to reduce the number of people living in shacks by way of unlawful and in fact criminal mass evictions that are often accompanied by state violence.

The talk of ‘eradication’  is clearly a form of denialism. It is a denial of the realities of urbanisation, it is a denial of the realities of poverty and it is a denial of the realities of the politics of space. We need to accept that people will continue to migrate to the cities in search of opportunity, that shack settlements will continue to be an important safety net for city people who cannot afford formal housing and that being able to live close to opportunity will continue to be more important for many people than living in a formal house. In some instances politicians are trying to cap the demand for urban housing by effectively criminalising urbanisation by the very poor. The KwaZulu-Natal Slums Act is the most egregious example of this. Measures like the Slums Act come down to a return to the use of state violence to keep the poor out of the cities. 

The fantasy that shacks will be eradicated by 2014 also leads to a failure to provide basic services to shack settlements. Now that they have all been rendered ‘temporary’ at the stroke of a bureaucratic pen the provision of services appears to be wasteful in the eyes of elite planners. But the reality is that many shack settlement are up to 30 years old and could easily continue to exist for another 30 years. In many of these settlements the provision of water, toilets, refuse removal and electricity is either non-existent or wildly inadequate. The failure to provide these services leads to all kinds of health problems and lays particular burdens on women’s time and, in the case of the absence of toilets, safety. 

One of the most acute consequences of the failure to provide services to shack settlements is the relentless fires. They can happen any time but across the country winter is particularly feared as the burning season. The huge Kennedy Road settlement in Durban has had 6 fires already this year. In Cato Crest, also in Durban, 8 people including 5 children recently burnt to death. Old people, disabled people and children are most at risk of death in the fires but everyone stands to loose their homes and possessions including the ID books and school uniforms essential for access to some state services.

The ultimate solution is clearly the provision of decent housing. But the housing crisis in South Africa is not reducible to the provision of houses. There are all kinds of smaller interventions that could immediately reduce the threat of fire. For instance, if there were taps spread throughout the larger settlements people would be able to fight the fires more effectively. And community fire fighting efforts would clearly be much more effective if fire extinguishers were provided.  Fires would be less likely to start and to spread if people were given fire resistant building materials. Fire engines would be better able to access the large settlements if roads were provided into the settlements. But the biggest issue is that of electricity. In settlements or parts of settlements that have been electrified, whether by the state or by residents, the incidence of fires is greatly reduced. There is a direct link between the fires and failure of most municipalities to electrify settlements, and in Durban the 2001 decision to cease all attempts to electrify settlements. This is compounded by the regular and often violent police raids to remove life saving self organised electricity connections. 

If the state is unwilling or unable to electrify settlements it must accept that, as happens across the word, people will do the job themselves.  Electricity is about many things. It means that children don’t have to do homework under street lights, that meals can be cooked, clothes ironed and families kept warm with much more safety and much less time and effort, often by women. It also means that people have much better access to the national public sphere via television discussion programmes. But most of all it means that people are not at constant risk of fire.

Almost invariably government spokespeople respond to shack fires by blaming the victims. We are told that the fires are the fault of a parent who wasn’t watching a child carefully enough or someone who was drunk and so on. These stories are often simply fabricated. But even when they are true the point is that when people have electricity an exuberant child, a drunk adult or someone who has grown tired at a funeral vigil might knock over a lamp but the result will be trivial – perhaps a broken globe. In a shack that is lit by a candle and where people are warmed by a brazier and their food cooked on a paraffin stove a tiny slip in concentration can quite easily result in catastrophe. For this reason the solution to shack fires is not, as government spokespeople say, to train people in fire awareness. The solution is to electrify the settlements.

People cannot be expected to live in constant fear of fire until they get government houses. Many people now living in shacks will, like Irene Grootboom, end their days in a shack. Shack fires are an emergency and electricity is a life saving essential service.

Dr. Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University.

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Rory Short
16 Aug


What is reflected in Richard's article is the government's complete inability to relate to the shack dwellers as people with hierarchies of needs just like people everywhere.

These people just happen to be living in shacks because given their circumstances shack dwelling is an essential part of their efforts to be able to meet other important needs of theirs. Of course they would like to live in a house but if that means being unable to meet some of these other important needs, like employment for instance then shack dwelling is clearly preferable to being accommodated in a house.

Government should rather work with shack dwellers to establish their particular hierarchies of needs and then mould state efforts to assist the shack dwellers according to what has been found out about their hierarchies of needs.

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