Defend Truth


How to fight – or better, avoid – fires in a township like Masiphumelele

Dr Lutz van Dijk is a writer, historian and human rights activist. He wasn't allowed entry to South Africa until 1994. Since 2001 he is a founding co-director of the HOKISA Children's Home in Masiphumelele ( His book ‘A History of Africa’ (preface by Archbishop Desmond Tutu) is told exclusively with African voices. His novel ‘Themba’ was made into an international movie in 2010.

The Masi community has been betrayed too many times over the past 20 years. Please, act now: With a responsible plan of re-blocking and more decent housing options on available city owned land, human lives will be saved, costs will be less in the long run as no more “disaster relief” and “super-blocking” will be needed.

When I started working in Masi more than 15 years ago, one of the first Xhosa words I learnt was “umlilo” – Fire! I never forget how in one of the first horrible shack fires I saw how one mother was screaming to her neighbours: “Umlilo, umlilo… just grab your child and ID and run!”

Her desperate scream was based on the experience that shack fires can not really be controlled and fought – no space between the shacks for emergency vehicles, not enough water pressure for fire fighters even if they come on time and no fire retardant paint will be strong enough to protect anything once a fire is raging. Basically, nothing has changed the past 15 years. Only the areas on high risk have grown from a few hundred to more than ten thousand of shacks and families, especially in the so called wetlands informal settlements in Masi.

At present, a war of emotions is raging between a group of activists of Masi neighbours and Ward Councillor Felicity Purchase (DA) about the planned new fire station just opposite the Masi entrance on Solole Farm for an estimated R 25-million. The activists are accusing the councillor of “blatant lies” regarding the real purpose of this fire station, while the councillor shoots back by complaining especially about one activist for “inciting Masi residents” and “not caring for the community”.   I am concerned that this emotional war does not lead anywhere, but only feeds more divisions inside and outside of Masi and takes attention away from the real issue: How to fight – or better even avoid – fires in the informal settlements in Masi?

Basically, the screaming mother is still right 15 years later.   What is needed are plans on two levels: 1) To upgrade the existing informal settlements with properly engineered and phased upgrading via re-blocking, so that access roads and enough water points are created. The existing relation of 70 households “sharing” one toilet and water tap is worse than in most UN refugee camps. A minimum standard would be four households to one toilet and water tap. And 2) Diverse housing options need to be created in and around Masi to also allow middle-class residents to stay and not to leave the community as soon as they can afford it. The key word here is gap housing – a mixture of low-cost social housing with middle class options of purchasing modest flats or houses.

It is an important achievement that some activists and Masi leaders were able to bring in the SA Human Rights Commission, one director of the Department of Environmental Affairs and finally the Public Protector who visited Masi twice recently. All visitors agreed that the present situation is unacceptable and needs to be addressed urgently. However, Masi residents have experienced too many promises before. Maybe it is crucial now not to repeat mistakes and insist on plans that – practically speaking –   avoid fires in the first place (and more fire fighters and subsequent disaster relief), but to allow instead safe upgrading of fire risk areas and decent and safe housing for most of the residents like in any other community.

A lot can be learnt from the only public-private housing project ever in Masi.  It was started in 2006 and transformed the former informal settlement “School Site” within four years into an area with flats for so far 232 families with their own community hall and playground   – called Amakhaya ngoku (Homes now).   The basic good aspects are still: It has been started as a community initiative, supported by all leaders and residents at the time. It has been so far financed 50% privately and 50% via government subsidies – and what is most important here: No serious fires have happened since then in an area which saw fires like in the wetlands today three to four times every year. The down side of the project also has to be told:   The delay in completing the project for another 120 families still waiting on a TRA (temporary relocation area) has been caused by mainly two factors:   The unity among the beneficiaries broke down, once some began to abuse their flats for personal profit and rented them out for five times the nominal rent to people from outside of Masi while refusing to pay any rent to the elected board which could not continue to maintain and govern the project properly. And second: The City of Cape Town did not take its lawful responsibility in being part of the governing board, but watched and complained from the sidelines about how the project was collapsing.

Now, the new city plans are, as we can read, a fire station on Solole Farm opposite Masi and the Phase 4 housing project for 227 beneficiaries from inside and outside of Masi which had been promised for more than 10 years and is still plagued by many delays.

As commendable as it is that for three months now a group of committed Masi neighbours have been picketing every Friday morning in support of land and real development in Masi, nothing will be sustainable in the long run, if there is not a united Masi leadership created, stronger than ever so far. Both sides – neighbour activists and ward councillor – keep claiming to   speak for the majority of residents   and produce certain “leaders” as the “real Masi representatives”. Still, as well as during the Friday pickets as in all important Far South civic organisations the ward councillor has to report to, Masi leaders are not seen regularly.   It is certainly true that one cannot expect such a Masi representation always to be done after hours and unpaid only. Masi leaders like Tshepo Moletsane, Dumsani Dhlapo or Brian Nompunga have certainly done more than one can expect.   I hope with all my heart that there will come a time when there will be personal and financial investments done into creating a Masi Council of its own right and with executive powers, properly elected representatives who will be paid and who can work from a proper office.   Not only ordinary Masi residents will benefit from such a Masi Council, but equally city and province in finally having a partner to communicate with reliably.

Finally, about financial investments:   The costs to upgrade all of the Masi informal wetlands with an estimated 14,000 households was R25-million in 2014 – the same amount the city has no problem at present in spending for a fire station on Solole Farm.   And the truth is: This land of Solole Farm of 5,4 has not been bought for a fire station, but for gap housing. I took part in the negotiations between the city and the owner at the time and ready to confirm this under oath at any court of law.   Please, City of Cape Town, build for Masi a fire station and police   station and new taxi rank – but only after you have realised the promised gap housing on Solole Farm and until you have updated, extended and completed your more than 10-year-long promised Phase 4 housing project for at least another 1,000 serviced sites on erf 5131 (which was bought for Masi in 2004 for housing and nothing else).

The Masi community has been betrayed too many times the past 20 years. What happened in Imizamo Yethu/Hout Bay recently can happen any day in Masiphumelele. Please, act now: With a responsible plan of re-blocking and more decent housing options on available city owned land, human lives will be saved, costs will be less in the long run as no more “disaster relief” and   “super-blocking”will be needed. DM


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