On 7 January 2013, we published an article titled Shack fires: A devil in the detail of development, by Jared Sacks. Later, on 14 January, we published a column Everyday inequalities: undermining our democracy, devastating our people, by the same author. Not surprisingly, City of Cape Town begs to differ. We publish their letter in its entirety.
But before we leave you to the capable hands of Cape Town’s communication people, we need to point to certain issues.
We were surprised that we received the letter from the City of Cape Town at all. Shortly after the first story was published, Mr Sacks received the following email:
Good afternoon to you
I have had the unfortunate experience of having your article referred to me about the shack fires. It is extremely disappointing to note the distorted contents and downright dishonesty in the article. In future you will not receive comment from either myself or staff on any request for information. Clearly your article is about trying to cause a stir but to lie outright is quite another thing. I am going to refer this to the press ombudsman as a formal complaint from my office.
Richard Bosman, Executive Director: Safety and Security, City of Cape Town
In response to this attack, Mr Sacks asked for clarification:
Good afternoon Mr Bosman,
Would you please provide me with more specifics as to where you believe that I have lied in my article.
I cannot respond to your email without such clarification.
Mr Bosman’s response was:
I will clarify that in my letter to the press ombudsman and he can then provide you with an opportunity to reply.
I am not going to waste time speaking to you via email anymore and neither will my staff.
So as we were waiting for the City of Cape Town to establish some kind of communication, even via the Press Ombudsman, we were a little surprised to receive the letter, accompanied with a demand to be published as the response to Mr Sacks’ articles, this time signed by Mr Sonnenberg.
As we always support being a platform for many, sometimes opposing views, we are more than happy to provide City of Cape Town with that opportunity, in spite of Mr Bosman’s threats. We do, however, want to point here that we stand behind Mr Sacks and his reporting.
Editor: Daily Maverick
BY COUNCILLOR ERNEST SONNENBERG, MAYORAL COMMITTEE MEMBER FOR HUMAN SETTLEMENTS
The City of Cape Town feels compelled to respond to Mr Jared Sacks’ opinion pieces presented as a journalistic investigation into the root causes of fires in informal settlements which appeared on the Daily Maverick’s website on 7 and 14 January 2013. The writer has repeatedly refused to present the City’s response accurately and the City cannot allow these inaccuracies to go unanswered.
The City provided the facts to Mr Sacks prior to publication of his first article, but regrettably, he used them selectively. City officials have been working tirelessly to assist BM Section residents, ever since the first call was received alerting them to the fire. In fact their presence has been noted on a daily basis, at community meetings that have been held to agree with the community on a sustainable plan for the area and at memorial services for those who tragically died in the fire.
As explained to Mr Sacks, the first telephone call was received from a member of the public at 04:45 on 1 January 2013 and the first vehicle was immediately dispatched from Lansdowne Road Fire Station and arrived at the scene at 05:02. The Control Centre received numerous telephone calls after that, but it must be noted that the vehicles were dispatched immediately after the first call was received. The first fire engine requested additional assistance (six fire engines and two additional water tankers) while en route to the scene. The additional assistance was also immediately dispatched from the nearest surrounding fire stations. The City advised Mr Sacks that the first vehicles initially experienced problems with accessibility as the residents had inadvertently and unintentionally blocked the path to the fire with their personal belongings that they were removing from the area affected by the fire. From that he incorrectly deduced that the City believed that the massive damage was the fault of the residents. In fact, City staff assisted residents wherever possible to remove their belongings from the path of the fire. One of the biggest challenges of fighting fires in informal settlements is density and access.
With regard to the dispatching of the helicopter, the article calls on the City to have done this earlier, claiming it could have ‘greatly diminished the destructive force of the blaze’. However, as the City has stated previously, the helicopter was employed at first light on 1 January 2013. It is not safe to dispatch a helicopter using “water bombings” while it is still dark – “water bombing” can cause substantial damage if it misses its target. The aerial firefighting efforts were thus used as soon as possible, when it was light and safe to do so and assisted in the efforts to contain the fire, while fire emergency vehicles remained on scene to assist with possible flare-ups. Had Mr Sacks observed other fire-fighting efforts in the City, he would understand that while it is acknowledged that helicopters can be helpful in fighting fires, they are only used when it is safe to do so both for those affected and the firefighters. It has nothing to do with the area in which the fire happens as he cynically suggests when comparing the fire fighting efforts in Khayelitsha and Camps Bay.
The comment that the City ‘responded with more speed and zeal’ to the New Year’s Day fire in Camps Bay shows Mr Sacks’ misunderstanding of firefighting principles. On 1 and 2 January 2013 alone, the City’s Fire and Rescue Services Section dealt with 307 incidents. Of those, 204 were fire-related and 103 were cases of medical trauma. Firefighters dealt with fires in informal settlements, formal residential areas and vegetation fires – all compounded by the gale-force south-easterly winds. As pointed out, no fire was prioritised over another. A short comparison of fire-fighting efforts in Camps Bay and BM Section confirms this: with both the BM Section fire and the Camps Bay fire, teams arrived on the scene in just under 20 minutes after the fire was reported and both were extinguished within six hours. The only difference was that the fire in Khayelitsha in fact received far more resources – 17 fire engines, two water tankers and a helicopter, compared with the seven fire engines dispatched to Camps Bay. It is disappointing that the writer suggests that race or class directs the City’s firefighting initiatives, rather than the technical response of all of the hard-working fire fighters who are qualified to fight fires.
The writer claims that no City Disaster Risk Management officials were seen in BM Section during site visits on 1 January 2013. It is difficult to comprehend how Disaster Risk Management staff and volunteers wearing yellow and orange reflective jackets on site managing the recovery and rehabilitation process throughout the day, as well as firefighting staff could have been missed. Disaster Risk Management staff performed a first phase rapid registration on the day – not only on 3 January 2013 as alleged – in order to determine the estimated number of people and structures affected by the fire.
The City’s Human Settlements Directorate continued its verification process in the days after the fire in order to confirm ownership. The Disaster Risk Management Centre provided armbands for identification purposes to those affected as a result of these rapid registrations and assessments. The City’s Disaster Management teams provided victims with hot meals, blankets, baby packs, clothing as well as trauma counselling. The South African Social Security Agency assisted the City with the provision of social relief for the fire victims and we made arrangements with the Department of Home Affairs to provide the fire victims with temporary Identity Documents. Temporary accommodation has also been provided in the OR Tambo hall while the plan for BM section which was agreed with the community on Thursday 10 January is completed.
The City has assisted, as much as it can, those affected by the fire. In fact, the City has welcomed and organised the overwhelming support demonstrated by Capetonians to those affected by the fire.
I encourage Mr Sacks to spend more time in BM Section to witness first-hand that our officials are still working very hard to assist the victims of the fire. He would observe that the site has been cleared of debris and portions of the area levelled to create access tracks; he would find officials from our Health Department at the hall to ensure hygienic conditions. He would see the City’s Disaster Risk Management Centre facilitating the distribution of donations as well as the 24/7 security patrols. There have been daily meetings to address the situation and the Mayor and I have been meeting with community representatives and relevant stakeholders to discuss the way forward. The Mayor, myself, and the community agreed on proposals on Thursday 10 January, with the following outcomes:
Mr Sacks’ comment that authorities “often” misuse fires to force shack dwellers into transit camps is not only completely untrue but slanderous of our efforts in Cape Town. Over the last year from 1 January to 31 December 2012 the total number of fatalities due to informal settlement fires was 103 – this is 48 fewer than in 2011. This demonstrates that efforts to reduce fire-related fatalities are working. The City is committed to improving the quality of life of all of its residents, including those informal settlements.
But even a cursory analysis would show that the situation is not simple. Sacks himself says that roads and services are ‘potentially lifesaving developments’ that are urgently required. Unfortunately, these upgrades can be lengthy and complex and involve continual and ongoing engagement with a community whose buy-in is essential but not a given. One of the biggest challenges is density and the need to relocate some people in order to implement these upgrades. Unfortunately complex dynamics within the community can hinder these relocations resulting in the delay of the process, but the City is committed to upgrading all our informal settlements. We understand that there is anxiety about upgrade projects especially when there is a need to de-densify an area, but we believe that in-situ upgrade projects provide an opportunity for maintaining a community’s links and building more sustainable human settlements.
The simple ‘it’s the government’s fault’ argument is easy to fall back on but holds no weight. There is no fault or blame in this situation. The City works with all concerned stakeholders, most importantly with the communities themselves, to ensure that we unblock and upgrade jointly and with ongoing communication. Everyone – the City and the residents included – is doing their best to manage a difficult situation. DM
"Take a chance, won't you? Knock down the fences which divide. Tear apart the walls that imprison you. Reach out. Freedom lies just on the other side." ~ Thurgood Marshall