Maverick Citizen

Maverick Citizen: Tuesday Editorial

Fire and Vice: Mismanagement, poor planning and corruption spark disastrous blazes

Firefighters battle a raging fire in Vredehoek in gale force winds and heavy smoke on April 19, 2021 in Cape Town, South Africa. It is reported that the wildfire broke out from the slopes of Table Mountain. (Photo by Gallo Images/Brenton Geach)

According to the Science Learning hub, ‘fire is the visible effect of the process of combustion – a special type of chemical reaction. It occurs between oxygen in the air and some sort of fuel. The products from the chemical reaction are completely different from the starting material. The fuel must be heated to its ignition temperature for combustion to occur. The reaction will keep going as long as there is enough heat, fuel and oxygen.’ This sounds like a metaphor for our politics.

On Thursday the world marks Earth Day. Apart from being a day where there will be countless protest actions by environmentalists and climate crisis activists the world over, it is also the day that US President Joe Biden will convene a summit of 40 of the world’s leaders to try to rebuild political will and action to address the climate crisis. We wish them well. Humanity’s future is in their hands.

In 2021, the indisputable truth is that we are not doing a good job of protecting Earth, its people and the species that live on it. Some days it feels like Earth is fighting back with its primordial powers – fire, infectious disease, frost – reminding humankind how small, vulnerable and powerless we are against the elements of nature. 

In South Africa, in the past week, we have seen how prone we are to a perfect storm that is gathering as a result of a range of intersecting failures. It has been a week marked by fire. The fires may seem miles apart (literally) but they are interconnected. They are failures of vision and governance; the consequences of corruption and callousness; the price of accepting poverty and inequality, and our complacency about pollution and our overheating environment. 

First, a fire consumed a part of Charlotte Maxeke Academic Hospital in central Johannesburg, forcing the closure of the second-biggest tertiary hospital in the southern hemisphere with one of the biggest Covid-19 ICU wards in the country – in the middle of the Covid-19 epidemic. More than 1,000 patients were evacuated. Many thousands more are affected. Patients are unable to collect medicines, doctors are unable to consult medical records, operations are postponed. 

It was a disaster waiting to happen.

The Charlotte Maxeke fire cannot be separated from a pattern of negligence, borne of funding cuts, corruption and contempt for the poor by both the hospital administration and Gauteng government. Fire hydrants were allegedly not working and weaknesses in the building’s infrastructure and upkeep are well known. Remember it was only three years ago that a collapse of part of the hospital roof injured six people. 

Firefighters react to a fire outbreak at Charlotte Maxeke Academic Hospital on April 16, 2021 in Johannesburg, South Africa. It is reported that the hospital’s special dispensary stores were destroyed by the fire and patients were moved to other healthcare facilities due to smoke contamination and as a safety precaution. (Photo by Gallo Images/Daily Sun/Morapedi Mashashe)

It was a disaster waiting to happen.

Johannesburg is a fire-vulnerable city. The combination of overcrowding, city capture by slumlords and criminal networks and the defunding of the fire department mean that when serious fires break out we are rarely able to control them. 

Witness the fire that conveniently destroyed the Department of Health’s provincial head office in 2018, killing three firefighters who were called to the rescue. The fire also came perilously close to the Johannesburg Art Gallery and its treasure trove.  

Witness nine lives lost this month in the inner-city informal settlement of Gazine. Witness the 1,000 homes destroyed in January in Booysens

Each fire was a disaster waiting to happen. 

Then on Sunday a fire broke out on the slopes of Table Mountain, causing a humanitarian emergency as people fled homes and student residences, as well as the irreplaceable loss of a significant and unique part of our African literary and political heritage, with the burning of UCT’s JW Jagger Library and the precious archives it held. 

The Cape Town fire was not an act of God (unless she’s trying to alert us to our folly). 

It was a disaster waiting to happen. 

Experts say this particular fire cannot be directly attributed to the climate crisis, but they also point out that fires of this intensity and frequency are a new phenomena globally – witness the fires in Australia, California and the Amazon. They are either caused by or contribute to the climate crisis, or both. 

The fire in Cape Town is linked to a host of environmental, developmental and climatic factors that include increased water use making the land drier; urban encroachment and urban heating effects; people planting the wrong type of trees and alien vegetation on the urban edge and no guidelines being applied on this; and an underfunded fire service and unprepared and incapable state.  

Put all this together and, on the right day at the right time in the right conditions, the Cape Town fire was a disaster waiting to happen. 

South Africa’s climate is warming at twice the global average, so fires are a fact of the future. Their frequency and the damage they do depend on whether we act now. 

The fire crisis will be fuelled by a water crisis, perhaps less spectacular but no less deadly. If you google “water shortages in the Eastern Cape” you will see that this has been a news issue for the past three years. Yet today, as I write, major urban centres in the Eastern Cape are down to their last drops.

Insufficient water – a disaster waiting to happen.

As usual the fires revealed the best of ourselves and the worst of ourselves. Politicians strutted and tutted in front of TV cameras while underpaid emergency workers, communities and organisations like Gift of the Givers did the hard graft of getting people out of danger and then catering to their needs. 

Just as with Covid-19, it’s communities and activists who step up when the government crashes through the cracks. But people’s power and organisation must now be directed towards preventing future disasters. 

For all these reasons and more these fires should be seen as a wake-up and a warning. Looting is now causing burning. The climate crisis is not a thing of the future. It is a clear and present danger. It needs a plan and immediate public and private investment to implement it – not another commission. Water and food insecurity demand the same. 

The fires are signs of a failing state and should be interpreted as a signal to citizen action that demands greater accountability and action from all those with legal, political and economic power to avert this crisis. DM/MC


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All Comments 19

  • There was quite enough water to put out the fire but it was allowed to go out of control making containment impossible. SANP and the City need to explain what they didn’t do or didn’t do quickly enough when the fire was still small.

  • I believe the author has drawn parallels that are not scientifically proven. Cape Town Fire department and the assistance from neighbors was faultless in its response and final conquering of the fire. To link it to Charlotte Maxeke is disingenuous and farfetched. I expect better from Mark Heywood

    • He is pointing out a failure to govern in conjunction with a changing climate. He is quite right to link the two disasters, though they may appear different.

    • I agree. “Yes, climate change is a real problem. However, it is typically vastly exaggerated, and the resulting alarmism is exploited to justify the wasteful spending of trillions” – Bjorn Lomborg.

    • “… the latest full U.N. Climate Panel report estimates … unmitigated climate change in [50 yrs] will reduce … each persons income 0.2 -2%” – Bjorn Lomborg.

    • Hmmmm I fail to see the link that you are insinuating … unless you mean “a disaster waiting to happen”
      But that just happens to be true in all of the cases Mark mentions!

  • Mark, whilst I respect your views at the hospitals, etc., the mountain fire is some else. I doubt that you have ever experienced a bush fire. I have, twice, in Montagu, Western Cape, and virtually impossible to control fast enough if the wind is blowing. One minute…and you have a wild fire

  • Mark, your article angers me. Your knowledge of wild fires sucks. Wild fires sometimes starts miles away from any human being (except if it is arson), and can spread fast within minutes. If the wind is blowing, it will be close to impossible to control. Please do research before you write anything

  • “The fires are signs of a failing state and should be interpreted as a signal to citizen action that demands greater accountability and action from all those with legal, political and economic power to avert this crisis.” How? where?

  • This facebook group (Use of prescribed fire in Southern Africa, Public group, 195 members) has more information on the Cape Town fire and is very likely to keep us all further informed about it.

  • One would have thought that a special effort would have been made to save the Jagger Library at UCT. Surely sufficient water and manpower were available? Without knowing all the facts however, it is easy to draw the wrong conclusions!! I am not impressed with the “Climate Change” aspect.

    • I believe the Jagger Reading Room (& Mostert’s Mill) could have been saved had the firefighters doused the buildings with water before the fire reached them. But hindsight is easy, and it would have taken someone in authority who knew what valuable items were at risk to give the apropriate order.

      • And if they had doused the buildings, the invaluable contents would have been destroyed by water damage! In very many cases of building fires, the damage by water is actually bigger than the fire damage!

  • Mark, the link with climate change is undeniable. The many detractors of this linkage may either be ideological denialists or simply not following the science.