While reconstruction after the May fire at the Masiphumelele informal settlement area in the Scenic South Peninsula will be ongoing for months, for many of those affected, life has returned to a semblance of normality. 

What kind of `normality’ is life in a settlement that could just as easily go up in smoke again?   I try to visualize myself with my family rebuilding our home, finding the resources to refurnish with the essentials for basic home comfort, and then trying to sleep at night knowing that we have rebuilt using the fuel for the next fire.  And that my neighbour whose house is less than a lick of flame away has done the same!  And that my other neighbours have built on what was supposed to be the access road for emergency vehicles and fire engines!

Surely this situation gives all who care sleepless nights.  And I wonder how living at risk like this could possibly be better than the conditions where these people have come from.  Some understanding emerged at a post fire report back meeting of NGOs involved in Masiphumelele. 

First, on a more positive note, the authorities hope to negotiate with those shack dwellers on the  access roads to move to alternative sites – so that in the event of another fire, emergency vehicles can get in. 

The NGO’s also called on the media to say THANK-YOU to the broad community for the incredible support and the generosity extended to the families affected by the fire.  Basic essentials especially clothing, but also food, money, bedding, building material, etc poured into Masi.  The Living Hope Center, acting as a collection point outside Masi took over 100 bakkie loads of donated goods to the Pink House and the Masi Baptist Church for redistribution.  The Catholic Welfare Bureau put their normal work on hold for over a week to act as the Ops Center for relief work.  Mercynet provided secure and efficient organizational support for both the emergency services during the fire and for the NGOs and the authorities during the extended phase of disaster relief. Special mention was made of the Taxi Association which apparently collected money and then bought food which they distributed to fire victims.     

Ironically the social capital (support) seen in the generous giving and the NGO involvement as well as the presence of functional government in urban areas such as Cape Town is part of the reason that people come to Masiphumelele even though they do not have a safe site for a home or a job. 

Rural Eastern Cape is a `failed state’ that can not meet people’s basic needs for education and health never mind the material accruements that TV and Radio adverts make us believe are essential proof of ‘having made it’.  So following a family member who already has a some kind of foothold in a metro area, 1000 families per month arrive in Cape Town, the numbers are higher in Gauteng.  Most often the newcomers do not have direct job prospects, but they hope that their city relatives will show them the ropes, recommend them to potential employers and help them to find or bribe their way onto a small site on which to build their `city’ house.  For many informal settlers in our metro areas, the Eastern Cape remains their `real home where the heart is’.  Until the new-comers find work, which may take a long time or not happen at all, they have better access to schools, clinics and the social grant system in the City than back at home. NGO’s provide a range of additional support including sporting opportunities, adult ed, soup kitchens, free clothing, activities for kids etc.  And let’s face it, the social buzz of city living is a big attraction. 

 Very little in this description is new in terms of the history of human settlement.  The old cities of Europe experienced similar patterns of urbanization by equally desperate people – and also experienced cruelly devastating fires in over-crowded poorly serviced slums.  More recently South America and the metropolitan centers in Africa, particularly Egypt experienced massive urban migration by rural poor.  Strict controls in South Africa during Apartheid skewed the process so that the rate of urbanization since 1994 has been difficult for the authorities to support, either with land, infrastructure or adequate leadership. (One could and should question political leadership that does not provide an adequate budget for essential services in rural communities and for serviced land in urban areas.) 

So given the inadequacies of land and service provision in new metropolitan informal settlements, why I ask don’t people organize themselves so that they are not vulnerable to fires and flooding.  After all, rapid urbanization has happened through the ages, but with modern communication, why don’t we learn from history.  It is not about the capacity to learn, it is about the lack of individual capacity to control your social environment. 

A new informal settlement is not a cohesive unit of people with established social networks and a sense of community.  Masi may not be a worst case, but consider the mix of nationalities and cultures, Ethiopian, Somali and Zimbabwian nationals living and competing for space and work alongside South Africans from communities across the Eastern Cape.  Even more significant than the diversity of the cultural groups is the reality that by and large it is a desperately poor community of people individually struggling for survival.  That is why some people living far from the fire ran toward it – not to help – but to see what they could grab for themselves!  That is why after the fire people would not listen to Mayor Plato’s appeals to keep the identified area open for emergency access vehicles.  Individually people could not afford to stand back in case they lost the fierce competition for a site – which some people did anyway as a few slightly more fortunate or greedy used the fire as an opportunity to extend the size of their houses.  Poverty driven desperation also motivated some people not affected by the fire to bluff the volunteers so that they could claim food and clothing.  Sadly, in a few cases, even volunteers were tempted to claim donated items for themselves.

The same poverty perpetuates the backyard shack phenomenon.  Someone at the NGO meeting said that an economic estimate of the rent paid by back yard dwellers is in the order of billions, yes billions of Rands.  More land for housing won’t stop backyard shack development.  Too many unemployed or under employed `landlords’ need to earn an income from tenants.  In Masi 12 brick RDP houses were burnt down because of the density and combustibility of their own backyard shacks from which the landlords were getting rent.    

 I am not trying to paint a distressing scenario, but rather to achieve some understanding for the lot of people in places like the Masiphumelele informal settlement area.  On a positive note, there is a huge amount of social capital supporting the communities in Masi. The response of the broader community in times of disaster is a valuable and high profile form of social capital, but it is the ongoing efforts of volunteers and staff from a wide range of NGOs as well as ordinary people who are moved to contribute that makes a significant day to day difference.  Through these combined efforts, Masi are being supported to become part of the social capital of their own community and by virtue of that, the social capital of Cape Town.  Only as people move up the ladder of education and economic opportunity will they be able to fully take control of their lives.

It is not an easy road with quick fixes, but it is one where all of us can be part of the social capital / support and make it a road worth travelling for a safer city and a good night sleep for all.  


Click here for an account of the 2 May Fire:  http://scenicsouth.co.za//2011/05/masiphumelele-fire-destroys-500-homes-how-you-can-help/

 Click here for a list of community and service organisations working in in Masiphumelele. http://scenicsouth.co.za//civic-community/volunteer-service-organisations/

Or find out more about the Community of Masi at: http://scenicsouth.co.za//civic-community/our-communities/masiphumelele/