From the municipality has been an effort to implement some basic design principles to ensure that shacks are erected at least three metres apart for firebreaks and to facilitate access by emergency vehicles. The City of Cape Town is also upgrading informal settlements in situ, installing electricity, refuse removal and other services, and looking at giving inhabitants title to the land, where this is possible. But unfortunately even in areas where upgrading has happened, such as the Joe Slovo informal settlement, adjacent to Langa township and visible from Cape Town’s N2 highway, this was not enough to prevent a blaze destroying a thousand shacks and killing six people. The Ukuvuka campaign, a civic education campaign, has also been doing its bit to educate informal settlement dwellers on how to minimise fire risks as well as what to do in the event of an emergency. They have also drawn attention to the role that domestic violence can play in the spread of fire.
The provincial government too has much to say when fires break out, as do residents of neighbouring wealthy communities, such as that of Hout Bay, following a devastating fire in the settlement of Imizamo Yethu. In that instance wealthy ratepayers enlisted the support of some of Imizamo Yethu’s original residents to interdict and prevent the council from making more land available, to relieve congestion and improve fire breaks. They fear a negative impact on surrounding real estate, and feel that Hout Bay has ‘had its turn’ at playing host to an unwanted community. The reality though is that informal settlements are growing all over Cape Town just as they are in Durban and Johannesburg. The most congested are those like Imizamo Yethu and Joe Slovo, which are close to work opportunities and social amenities.
There will always be pressure on these settlements, and managing them to reduce the risk of fire and ensure safe living conditions is a major challenge for government. At a recent Imbizo the President ducked a reporter’s question about what he proposed be done in Joe Slovo, which he visited immediately after the fire. He passed the question on to Cape Town’s mayor. Hopefully this is not a reflection of national government’s approach to the country’s burgeoning informal settlements. Tackling them, upgrading and formalising them will require the effort of all three spheres of government, the support of the private sector and the goodwill of fellow citizens, who benefit from the cheap labour provided by the new migrants who inhabitant informal settlements.