Naashief and Chevon’s stories of runaway fires

In the last decade, Cape Town has become South Africa’s most fire prone city, with its sprawling informal settlements reporting the highest rate of shack-fire-related deaths in the country. One such settlement, Overcome Heights, is home to some 20,000 residents and is a hotspot of such tragedies. Evidence of this is seen in the charred black zinc sheets recycled to rebuild homes after each fire event, and heard in the stories of locals, virtually all of whom have personally suffered from the intersecting impacts of fires and violence.

Chevon, a long-term resident of this township, tells of her former neighbours - a father and his three children - who were burned alive having not reacted with the lightning instincts necessary to escape runaway fires, which rapidly consume entire communities. The sheer speed and destruction of these fires are such that the smallest of flames, such as from a neglected pot on the stove or a fallen candle, can create ferocious infernos.

The challenge of fires is reflected not only in their wholesale destructive action, but also once subsided, in creating a frantic rush to reconstruct homes as the strictly informal nature of the community creates conditions whereby if residents don’t act with speed, then somebody else will simply build over the land where their shacks once stood. The impromptu, arbitrary nature of rebuilding is further compounded by issues of increasing population densities which result in the touch-tight proximity of shacks, with ‘streets’ consisting of walkways that are so narrow that one must often turn sideways to traverse them. The subsequent urban jungle provides perfect conditions for further runaway fires.

Former 11-year resident of Overcome Heights Phumzile suggests that there is a plethora of causes of local fires, but that all are derived from negligence, predominately from the “top down” but also from poor individual responsibility around matters of fire safety. A common cause that converges the two is the issue of illegal electrical connections, whereby inhabitants tamper with limited electricity sources in attempts to increase supply to their homes.

Constant fires further create an unstable environment of repeated deprivation cycles, which foster conditions for violence. Murder is a continuous fact of life in the settlement. Naashief, an 18-year resident of Overcome Heights trying to work his way out of the settlement, had a friend of 10 years shot dead two weeks before we spoke to him. Gangsters are becoming more of a problem in the community - Naashief is father to a young daughter, and conveys the difficulty of raising children in such an environment; he is terrified if his daughter is 5 minutes late coming home from school.

In Overcome Heights, fire and crime converge to adversely impact residents economically, physically, and psychologically. Climate change is projected to intensify the weather conditions that contribute to the likelihood and intensity of fires in the community. The Water and Fire project aims to engage with the township’s community to identify where and how the causes and fallout of runaway fires can be mitigated, helping wider progress towards a safer socio-cultural environment.