The shack fires in Khayelitsha are not just physically devastating, they also indicate something far deeper – the inequality that continues to plague South Africa, and will continue to do so until we all do something to change it.
On New Year’s Day, I was informed that much of Site B in Khayelitsha was in the throes of a shortage of bread and other baked goods.
I had arrived in BM Section shack settlement to find out what happened in the aftermath of a massive fire which had swept through the settlement in the early hours of 1 January. The inferno, enhanced by a strong south-easter, has left thousands homeless and at least five people dead.
And yet, this woman, who knows me from my work with a community-run crèche in QQ Section shack settlement, did not want to talk to me about the fire. Rather, she wanted me to know that there was no bread in the area. She knew that I could not do anything about it, but she felt the need to complain just the same.
Lets return later to the fact that this middle-aged single mother is simply dying to feel, as any human being should, that she counts in this society, also the near complete absence of the state from her daily life in the shacks (even though she pays VAT and service fees like other South Africans), and finally, the need of all people to feel important and have someone to listen to us and take note of our grievances. Let’s first talk about the other basics.
A staple food such as bread could become scarce in a community of tens of thousands of people even while there is no shortage throughout the rest of the city or country. In Cape Town’s leafy and fortified Southern Suburbs, well-stocked supermarkets rarely experience shortages of basic goods – though Woolies might run out of authentic Italian bell tomatoes every now and again. Yet, throughout the townships, shortages of all types of commodities are not only common, but part of life.
This is not because of some antiquated self-centred “communist” distribution system, but merely because the “market” favours those with buying power, i.e. the rich and middle classes.
Queues and shortages are often thought to be caused by restrictions on the divine powers of the market. Just think of the iconic image of freezing Russians standing in line for hours to get their weekly bread ration. It is said by these adherents to orthodox neoliberal economics that in a free market, businesses have an interest in ensuring queues remain short and customer service friendly and responsive.
And still, go to any ATM in Khayelitsha, Nyanga or Langa and you are likely to stand in line. Try filling up at a petrol station at around 5pm and you could wait as long as 30 minutes to be seen by an attendant. Purchase electricity or buy a bus ticket (hopefully not with Roadlink) at the wrong time from your local Shoprite and you may be stuck behind dozens of people trying to do just the same. For many, this is a daily routine.
Woe unto you if you forget that it is month-end and you attempt to do any of the above! I’ve seen people wait over an hour just to withdraw 100 ‘dibas from the ATM.
These are the kinds of things that many of us who are privileged enough take for granted but they are important indicators of just how well the free market actually works. The above examples are not necessarily life-threatening – unless you need those 100 ‘dibas immediately in order to pay off a gun-wielding loan shark. It is also unlikely that anyone in Site B starved to death on the 1st for lack of bread. Yet these are everyday examples of how trickle-down economics remains non-existent in reality and reinforces a range of inequalities – not only economic but also political and social.
The proverbial hand will not allow itself to be taken out of the cookie jar to begin scrounging around for crumbs on the floor.
In truth, what Adam Smith’s invisible hand does is create a hierarchy of consumption and distribution that favours the rich over the poor. It is a reverse Robin Hood that undermines, manipulates, and robs the poor to line the pockets of the rich.
At Shoprite in Delft, you will get completely different products and service to their counterpoint Sea Point store. The fresh veggies that you will find at the latter will be barely edible at the former and while your kidney steak pie will cost the same at both locations, buying from a township-based Shoprite is more likely to gift to you a bout of food poisoning. Trust me, my bowels, sadly, speak from experience. Never mind the fact that at Khayelitsha Superspar, all shoppers are treated as suspects: security guards are hired merely to go through all your groceries to make sure you haven’t stolen a chocolate bar on your way out. Not so at the Superspar in the Cape Quarter.
Back to the massive New Year’s fire at BM Section.
One: The police service is almost always sub-par in Khayelitsha – except when we’re talking about their willingness to stifle protests or destroy shacks built on unused municipal land. (The budget, for instance, of the City’s Anti-Land Invasion’s Unit is through the roof.) This is why the Social Justice Coalition, after months of perseverance, have forced Helen Zille into announcing a police inquiry.
Still, in a situation I have never seen before, police investigators left at least two of the three dead bodies for hours lying underneath a blanket and a pile of burned zinc sheets. These bodies were unattended, meaning the crime scene could have been tampered with or the dead bodies stolen. Not only is this bad practice, but it is also extremely demeaning and disrespectful to the families of the deceased. This is about inequality here: one would never see such callousness concerning a dead body in Constantia.
Two: Although this is disputed by Richard Bosman, Executive Director for Safety and Security at the City of Cape Town, residents claim that it took up to two hours for the first fire-truck to arrive on scene at BM Section, which they say drove all the way from Kuils River. This despite the fact that the local fire station is only one kilometre down the road. It remains unclear if a local fire truck arrived late because they could not gain access to the settlement or if indeed it came from outside Khayelitsha. Eventually, six fire-trucks arrived to help put out the blaze.
However, Site B is a particularly high-risk area, with almost tens of thousands of high-density shacks, extremely dry desert-like heat and strong winds. One would think that this would be a priority for fire-services. Yet, while thousands of people lost everything they owned, accounts by locals who were on seen say that a single helicopter was only dispatched to deal with the blaze late in the morning (well after first light).
Contrast this to the City’s response to a much smaller and less dangerous fire in Camps Bay, which also started on New Year’s Day in the late afternoon. According to reports, seven fire trucks and 38 fire fighters were on scene immediately and solicited further help from the Volunteer Wildfire Services (VWS), who say that they had as many as 42 of its own members involved fighting that fire and an array of supporting vehicles. Fire services even flew two helicopters in to prevent the fire from spreading near resident’s multi-million rand homes.
In response to the fire, Khayelitsha victims have been treated like the voting banks politicians consider them to be. They’ve been given luxurious concrete floors to sleep on, a few top-quality zinc sheets to build with, and lekker juice and plain bread to fill their stomachs. No mattresses, no fireproof building material, and not even a decent meal to keep them going till they can get back on their feet. Disaster Management might as well corral them into a barn and give them alfalfa fodder and antibiotic injections, as they are being treated no differently than AFGRI‘s livestock. Do enough just to keep these poor black families alive so that they can continue cleaning our toilets, guarding our banks and cooking our burgers.
Such inequalities entrench themselves in our daily life, not only because our politicians and technocrats suffer from what David McDonald calls a “World City Syndrome”, but also because the logic of capitalism itself implies One Randela, One Vote. Thus, Mike Davis is able to show that during the Late Victorian era, it was capitalism itself that brought environmental “holocausts” upon the Third World. More recently, Neil Smith has argued that the market dictated who would live and die (and who would profit or go broke) in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
Does anyone remember that in 2012, DA Mayoral Committee Member for Safety and Security, Mr JP Smith, admitted to punishing the poor because they “do not pay rates”? (Even though they do pay more than their fair share of VAT).
Within such a society, poor life is devalued so much that it’s not worth the time and effort to protect it. Rather, it is economically thoughtful to focus one’s resources on protecting million-rand homes, maintaining white elephant stadia, and ensuring that wealthy shoppers can spend their hard-earned (or not so hard earned) rands in a quick and efficient manner.
Cape Town is one of the most unequal cities in the world – not only in terms of the GINI coefficient, but in terms of outright spatial segregation and social feelings of exclusion and alienation. South Africa is the second most unequal country in the world after Namibia. The divide between the suburbs and the townships, as well as between the urban and the rural, is growing each and every day. This is not because of a downturn in the economy, but because of the structure of the economy itself.
So what is the way out of this mess that we find ourselves in?
Another world is necessary. We are looking at no more honourable alternative than forcing through some fundamental changes that will dismantle the hierarchies and inequalities that dominate our society and build new ways of living and relating to one another. And yet, we can’t rely on politicians and businessmen to do this for us – they are the ones who got us into this mess in the first place.
As acclaimed writer and poet Audre Lorde once said, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”.
In order to build our world anew, we will have to change the world ourselves. DM
Jared Sacks is a founder of the Children of South Africa. Since 2007, he has been living in Cape Town working directly with communities supporting their efforts to build authentic grassroots social change. He has worked closely with a range of poor people's social movements. He is also the compiler of the anthology No Land! No House! No Vote! Voices from Symphony Way.
Watermelons were originally cultivated in Africa.