Right now the Kennedy Road settlement is, once again, burning. An update will follow once more on the fire is known.
Summary of past incidences of fires:
In October 2005, Mhlengi Khumalo, a young child was killed in a fire in Kennedy Road. In August 2006, Baba Dhlomo, an old man, was killed by fire in the settlement. In January 2007 the settlement survived a big fire without loss of life but then in April that year two people were lost in another big fire.
In November 2007 Abahlali baseMjondolo marched on Mayor Obed Mlaba demanding electrification to stop the fires. Peaceful protesters were attacked and beaten and 14 were arrested. The City did not reply to the demand for electrification or to a statement by 14 Church leaders protesting the police attack and arrests.
On 15 February this year the police arrived at the Kennedy Road settlement as if they were going to a war. They moved through the settlement removing both lawful and unlawful connections. Abahlali declared that if there was a fire in the settlements after this armed removal of electricity connections the City would be held accountable. Two days later there was a fire.
In March this year the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, Miloon Kothari, presented his report on South Africa. It condemned the eThekwini Municipality for failing to electrify the shack settlements despite the regular fires.
In April this year 1 600 people were left homeless after the Jadhu Place settlement burnt down. They have been prevented from rebuilding their shacks and herded into atrocious single sex ‘transit camp’ accommodation.
On 27 April this year, in his speech at the Abahlali baseMjondolo UnFreedom Day event held in the Kennedy Road settlement, Bishop Rubin Philip said that:
I know that this is a difficult time for your movement. I know that last weekend a candle was knocked over in the Jadu Place settlement and two hours later 1 600 people had lost their homes and all their possessions. I know that this year there have already been terrible fires in the Foreman Road settlement and right here in Kennedy Road. It is unacceptable that the poorest people in our cities must live with this plague of fire. Today I am making a strong and clear call to our Municipality, and to the Municipalities of all our cities across the country, for immediate action to stop these fires. The settlements must be electrified, fire hydrants provided and access roads for fire engines built.
In 1990 the Durban City Council announced and began to implement an ‘Electricity for All’ policy. In 2001, when the Slums Clearance Programme was announced, the policy changed and shack settlements were no longer electrified as they were now considered ‘temporary’. The 2001 policy states:
In the past (1990s) electrification was rolled out to all and sundry. Because of the lack of funding and the huge costs required to relocate services when these settlements are upgraded or developed, electrification of the informal settlements has been discontinued.
When challenged the City says that it can no longer afford to electrify shacks. A City administration that can afford BMWs for its leaders, an unnecessary stadium, a loss making themepark and million rand beach parties for its guests can’t afford to electrify the homes of the poor. Can the poor afford to accept the authority of this City?
When people burn in shack fires they are told that it is their own fault. As if people don’t get drunk in the suburbs, as if people don’t get distracted by a child in the suburbs, as if people do not fall off to sleep in the suburbs on a windy night with a light still on. The difference is that when a lamp is knocked over in the suburbs it just means a broken globe. In the shacks when a candle is knocked over there can easily be a catastrophic fire. And then there are the paraffin stoves that can explode any time no matter how careful people are.
Let us be clear. The decision to stop the electrification of the shack settlements was and is a decision to let them burn.
On Friday Philani Zungu was found guilty of connecting his community to electricity unlawfully. It is notable that his settlement, Pemary Ridge, has not burnt. The reality is that in Durban the very poor have to break the law to keep their communities safe. Philani is considered to be a hero in his community. People ensured that he did not pay one cent of his fine. It is the eThekwini Municipality’s policy that is considered criminal.
Today hundreds of people stood outside in the cold in the eMagwaveni settlement as Abahlali baseMjondolo launched our new branch in Tongaat. There people are routinely arrested and beaten and robbed by the police as they try to remove the unlawful connections. But the arrests and the fines and the beatings and the thieving does not stop people from connection themselves. As bad as all that is it is better than the fires, better too than children doing their homework on the road under the street lights.
S’bu Zikode is on the scene. His number is 0835470474.
Update: The City Fire Department was there within 15 minutes. These days, after years of struggle, they provide a good and much appreciated service to shack dwellers. But the struggle for electrification and against violent police de-electrification continues.