One life and 365 informal structures destroyed, 380 children and 1500 people affected — these numbers reflect the physical losses of a shack fire in Langa, one of Cape Town's townships, on the 5th of March this year. A destructive yet somewhat regular occurrence in Cape Town, shack fires seem to target the city's most vulnerable residents who have the least ability to "bounce back" after a disaster, largely a product of unsustainable densification. Informal shacks, built precariously close to one another and with little regard for safety spacing, often seem to encourage fires in their design alone, ignoring the possibility of disaster for the sake of their immediate shelter needs.
One of the most shocking things about this particular fire was the ease with which it started. Most residents seemed to know that it started when a candle fell over in the shack of the only person to have died in the fire — an elderly lady from the Eastern Cape, well-known in Langa for her informal produce stand. The fire spread easily from her shack to the surrounding homes, and soon engulfed the surrounding informal shacks.
Informal houses, backyard shacks, and shebeens — informal 'general stores' — all burned within minutes. The fire also burned out part of the historic Langa Hostels: Originally built in the 1960s, the hostels served as a staging ground for many anti-Apartheid protests in the 1980s. The hostels, recently condemned by the City, continue to informally house local residents and families.
Theft and usurpation of land is a serious problem after a fire, and instead of having their land and possessions taken, people made up camp on-site to protect what's left of their livelihoods.
The lack of structured roads, alleyways, and clear spaces in this part of the township meant that emergency crews couldn't get to the structures quickly enough to immediately put out the fire.
Some residents, like Thandiswa, were at home when the fire started. 'It was all I could do to get my mother and children out of the house in time before the fire burned it down.' Unemployed and single, Thandiswa lived in one of the rooms of the hostels with her elderly and disabled mother and two children. The family gained its only source of income from the mother's disability grant, and now faces the challenge of re-building a house on land that they don't own.
Another resident, who did not give his name, only found out about the fire when he returned home from work and found his home destroyed. He lived with his mother in an informal shack and made ends meet as a petrol attendant at the BP Garage on the other side of Langa. He now has to find a way to self-build his house again while at the same time keeping up his regular job.
How the government steps in
This is where the City of Cape Town's Disaster Management Team comes in to the picture. Normally, the City provides three days of food, over three meals a day, for affected residents, and extended it to six days in this case. It also opened shelters in the surrounding municipal halls on a temporary basis for affected residents. Seeming to defy logic, though, most residents choose not to — in fact, refused to — stay at the shelters. They chose instead to sleep on the exact site of their burned house. Theft and usurpation of land is a serious problem after a fire, and instead of having their land and possessions taken, people made up camp on-site to protect what's left of their livelihoods. This points to the simultaneous threat of theft and violence as well as the problematic security of tenure in informal areas.
In order to help people re-build as quickly as possible, the City of Cape Town distributed 'Housing Starter Kits' to those who lost their homes. Consisting of several sheets of zinc, poles, nails, and plastic sheeting, the basic kit allows people to put up an immediate informal structure on their land. Although very basic, in light of immediate needs the kits make a real difference for people who have no other means of re-building after a disaster. Families often combine kits and what's left of their old houses to build larger shared structures, where multiple families occupy one large room.
In touring the site, City Disaster Relief official Edmund Leeman points out the bitter irony in housing reconstruction: As residents begin to rebuild, the exact same patterns of unsustainable density start coming up. Shacks are built directly next to one another, with no space on either side to prevent against the next fire. 'If we try to enforce space in between houses, other people simply move into the space once we leave, eliminating the very reason for creating the space in the first place while aggravating fragile community dynamics.'
In touring the site, City Disaster Relief official Edmund Leeman points out the bitter irony in housing reconstruction: As residents begin to rebuild, the exact same patterns of unsustainable density start coming up.
Rethinking housing solutions
When faced with the challenge of 'what now?' it is difficult to find a good place to start. The City's starter kits and food provision are no doubt an immediate boost to residents, but what about long-term strategies to protect against future fires?
One of the most obvious possibilities seems to be the design of the houses themselves. Surrounding the site of the fire, triple-storey, city-built housing blocks look like a promising option. But while they are newer, safer, and more formalised than shacks on the ground, residents simply don't want to move into the larger multi-storey units because they don't work for their livelihood needs. There is no space to build backyard shacks (a vital source of informal rental income for many families) or establish any form of business or micro-enterprise in a structurally-limited third-floor unit.
The design of new housing could change this. By building structures that accommodate the entrepreneurial needs of residents and permit self-build expansion, the City and other housing providers could go a long way to boost the acceptability of multi-storey housing in informal communities. Community engagement is also vital: Finding out more about what makes people NOT want multi-storey housing will go a long way to influence the design of appropriate housing that supports a more sustainable and safer model of densification.
Designing fire out
For the immediate future, though, new design solutions are starting to come about that focus on making informal shacks fire-retardant. The Vineyard Hotel, a prominent and historic Cape Town resort, has begun a new initiative of cork recycling. The material itself is naturally fire-resistant, and in partnership with its five partner vineyards, the hotel has collected over 25,000 corks to make fire-retardant floors for children's centres in Cape Town's townships.
The team behind Cape Town-based Urban Mosaic has also started thinking creatively about different design solutions. Their work with fire-retardant paint holds great promise for helping to alleviate the consequences of shack fires while adding new colour and life to informal communities.