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Abahlali baseMjondolo (eThekwini) Press Statement
Friday, 08 August 2008

Let us Work Together to Stop the Plague of Shack Fires
Abahlali baseMjondolo Calls for a Shack Fire Summit

This weekend the eight people that burnt to death in two shack fires in Cato Crest will be buried. This weekend we will continue to rebuild the Kennedy Road settlement after two fires in two weeks.

We do not accept that the poor must burn in shack fires. This is not God’s will.

We cannot be silent while facing these fires. If we were silent we would have no right to exist.

Some councillors just take the people’s votes and then leave them to burn with the fire. The people have put these councillors on trial and found them guilty. In Abahlali baseMjondolo we buried our councillors. Community organisations across Durban and across South Africa have rejected these councillors. The time of the councillors is over. The time of the people has come back.

When ever there is a shack fire the politicians rush to blame the people for being drunk or not watching their children properly. Let us be clear. People in houses also get drunk. Their children also like to play in the house. The difference is that they have electricity and so their houses do not burn when these things happen.

It is the Municipality that makes the people burn with fire. They separate us from the other people. It is like we do not belong to South Africa. They take their own time to build us houses but they don’t put the electricity while we wait. The fact that we are waiting for houses doesn’t mean that we must get burnt while we wait, that our children must get killed by rats while we wait, that women must get raped looking for a safe place to go to the toilet while we wait. We must all be safe while we wait.

If they put the electricity the fires will not come to us. The problem is not that we are stupid. We do not need training on how to avoid fires. The problem is that we do not have electricity.

Electricity will save our lives. Most fires are caused by candles and paraffin stoves. If they don’t connect we must connect. If they will not connect us then they must not arrest and beat us for connecting ourselves. If democracy is for everybody then everybody needs to be safe in a democracy and we are doing the work of the government when we connect ourselves. When we connect ourselves we are making the democracy real. When we connect ourselves we are making everyone count the same.

Anyone who says that electricity is a luxury that the poor do not deserve must spend one winter living in a shack and trying to survive the fires before they speak about what is a luxury and what is a necessity.

It is true that the government has failed to make enough electricity. But we cannot be expected to pay the price for their laziness. If someone has to pay the price it is better that the big companies and rich people that can afford generators should pay the price. Anyway, why are all the lights in the government and business offices on at night while we burn in the dark without electricity?

When Abahlali baseMjondolo started the media had no interest in shack fires. It took us a lot of time and energy and many police beatings before we could restore our human dignity. Now our lives are taken more seriously. The fires are now reported in the media. We appreciate this. We get more support from churches and even individuals and we appreciate this. But we still have the same old problems of NGOs that we don’t know raising money on East Coast Radio in the name of our suffering.

We used to have to ask our Indian neighbours to phone the fire brigade because they wouldn’t come if we phoned. Now the fire brigade comes quickly in Durban and when they get to the fire they work with the people. They do a good job. We appreciate it. They now take us as citizens in this country – and they take us all as citizens, they do not ask for an ID before they put the water on the flames. In Pinetown they still come too slowly though. A person who hears that there is a fire at home can leave work and get home before the fire brigade gets there.

We used to be on our own after the fires. Disaster management would either not come or, if they did, they would give us food for one meal and a blanket and then leave. Now the eThekwini Municipality has given good building materials to the people in Kennedy. They have given cement, wooden poles, corrugated iron, planks and nails . At first they wanted to make a transit camp but we said no. After we discussed it together they are now supporting the people to rebuild. We really appreciate it that after all these years of neglect and conflict they are now talking to the people and bringing the people building materials after fires. We also really appreciate that the City will be supporting our Clean Up Campaign on 16 August.

What we have won we have won through struggle. Our advice is that all settlements must mobilise and be vocal.

The people’s voice is always condemned by party politics. The parties all compete to bury the children burnt in the fires. None of them demand electricity for the poor, none of them defend the electricity connections made by the poor when the police come to disconnect us and arrest us and beat us back into the darkness and the fires. Our advice to other settlements is that the people should organise independently of the parties. But each settlement must decide this question for themselves.

What we have won cannot just be for Kennedy Road. It cannot just be for the 14 Abahlali baseMjondolo settlements that are now negotiating with the City for upgrades. Each step forward must be a step forward for all the settlements. Each victory must be shared.

But we are disappointed that after the Cato Crest people asked to also get building materials some officials are saying that shacks are being burnt purposefully so that people can get these materials. Who would cheat their own life? Who would burn themselves? If the City want to keep moving forward they must put away, for ever, the idea that shack dwellers are dirty, lazy, stupid and dishonest. After many years of struggle the hated of black people had to be put away. Now the hatred of the poor must be put away. We must build one city together by talking and working together. And while we are doing this we must remember that South Africa belongs to all who live in it – not just those with ID books.

In Abahlali baseMjondolo we have held many memorials for people killed in shack fires. We have fought many fires. We have rebuilt many settlements after fires. We have had many discussions about fires. We have asked researchers and lawyers to investigate the fires. Right now Matt Birkinshaw and Mnikelo Ndabankulu are going to different settlements and talking to people about the fires. They will make a report for us.

Our position on the fires will develop as we have more discussions with more people. But we are already committed to these demands:

1. Every settlement needs taps spread through out the settlement as well as hoses and fire extinguishers and every settlement needs these immediately.
2. The City must immediately reverse its 2001 decision to stop electrifying shacks.
3. People who have not been connected to electricity by the City must be supported to connect themselves.
4. All settlements must, where ever possible, be upgraded where they are with proper houses and this must be done with democratic and not top down planning methods.
5. While people are being connected to electricity the City must ensure that everyone gets good service from the fire brigade and that all settlements get good building materials after fires.
6. Because the fires are the result of the failure of the City to continue to electrify shacks after 2001 they should pay compensation to all the people that have suffered in the fires from 2001 till now.

We have decided to call a city-wide Summit on Shack Fires. We invite all shack dwellers’ organisations, all NGOs that can offer technical support, churches and all relevant city officials. We have decided on the following programme of action in the lead up to the Summit on Shack Fires:

1. Saturday 9 August till Friday 6th September: Internal Meetings of All Shack Dwellers’ Organisations. All Abahlali baseMjondolo branches, other shack dwellers’ organisations and allied poor peoples’ movements will hold internal meetings with their members to discuss their experiences of shack fires and their views on the way forward. This will begin the process of developing an agenda for the Summit on Shack Fires. Leadership will not formulate the agenda. It will come out of these discussions.
2. Saturday 7th September: Summit Planning Meeting of All Shack Dwellers’ Organisations at the Kennedy Road settlement. We will invite every settlement in KwaZulu-Natal to send representatives. We will invite representatives from our branches in the Western Cape and the Northern Cape. We will invite representatives from sister movements like the Landless Peoples’ Movement in Johannesburg and the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign in Cape Town. We will also invite the South African Shack and Rural Dwellers’ Organisation and the Homeless Peoples’ Federation. These organisations do not all agree on politics. But we are all agreed that the fires must be brought to an end. We will try and build a united front against the fires.
3. Sunday 21 September: Mass Prayer hosted by Abahlali baseMjondolo at the Kennedy Road settlement. All shack dwellers’ organisations are welcome.
4. Monday 22 September: Summit on Shack Fires at the Foreman Road settlement. This summit will give all the shack dwellers organisations a chance to engage with the City. We do not want the summit at the ICC. We want it in the shacks. We do not need the police at this summit. We do not need their helicopters flying just over our heads. We just want to talk. We are just going to talk. If it goes well we could, together, develop a new way of doing things in Durban. If it fails we will have to go back to the streets. Human beings cannot live in fires.

The media are welcome to come to all of these events. For more information or comment please contact:

Louisa Motha: 0839574122
Shamita Naidoo: 0743157962
Mnikelo Ndabankulu: 0797450653
Zodwa Nsibande: 0828302707


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