Khayelitsha residents rebuild after fire

EWN reports that Khayelitsha and Philippi residents are rebuilding their shacks after blazes ripped through their homes this weekend.

Dozens of shacks went up in flames in Khayelitsha, two were killed in Hangberg and more than a thousand people were displaced in Philippi.

According to the Fire Protection Association of South Africa (FPSA) there were 5283 informal dwelling fires recorded by municipalities and reported to the FPASA in the 2016/2017 reporting period.

The biggest culprit that was specifically cited (In other words, not “undetermined” or “other”) was open flames.

According to the FPSA because informal settlements involve a lot of flammable materials and the homes are set very close to each other, fires spread very easily.

Not only that, but because they’re so cramped and don’t have good roads – it is very difficult for firefighters to even get to the fires before they spread.

My Take

One of the things I think it is important to remember about poverty is that it actually comes at a cost, it is generally more expensive to be poor.

On a personal level these fires can mean people losing everything, but also on a municipal level they represent a constant drain on city resources because of how chaotic and unplanned the settlements are.

And it isn’t only fire that’s a problem. A study from Argentina in 2011, which was published in the journal Sustainable Environmental Design in Architecture, went into how informal settlements promote bad living conditions, and increase health problems.

Those problems come at a cost.

According to a piece published in the AH&DB medical journal, when Asheville, North Carolina introduced a housing scheme to solve its homelessness problem, this what happened to healthcare costs:

  1. Healthcare costs are reduced by 59%
  2. Emergency department costs are decreased by 61%
  3. The number of general inpatient hospitalizations is decreased by 77%

So here is the thing, we keep getting these fires, we have these health problems, we know that housing people can actually save us money, but because of a long history of corruption, we still have these huge informal settlements.

Another story I saw today was from The Citizen, celebrating how Sekhukhune district municipality in Limpopo managed to recover R4.7 million out of R5.4 million stolen by unscrupulous municipal officials three months ago.

The money had been moved out of the province, some of it out of the country, and a bit of it went into Limpopo hotels.

Now it is good that most of that money is back – but that still represents three months where that money was not available to do its work in that municipality.

One thing I learned from my first job, which was as a audit clerk, was that cash flow is king. If you look at the SABC, they have a lot of debtors, but that doesn’t really help them because a fair few are fictitious but also a big chunk just aren’t paying – having the asset isn’t as good as having the cash.

This interruption in Sekhukhune’s cashflow represents maintenance not being done, services not being delivered.

With the VBS scandal, the thing a lot of people seemed to have overlooked was – it wasn’t just the people who banked with VBS who were victims there. The money that went into VBS from the municipalities, was from municipalities that were already struggling for cash.

That money is again, maintenance not being done, services not being delivered.

We need to solve this problem – not just address it after the fact but build internal controls in our municipalities which deal with the cash flow issue that is corruption. We need to be able to stop it before the corruption happens.

If we do that, we can then use that cashflow to solve problems like the housing problem that causes all these fires. We are not a poor country, we’re just constantly being robbed, and if we can get our money out of the hands of thieves and open up the cashflow that represents, we can solve issues like our informal settlements.

And it costs us less to solve those issues than to do nothing.

The thing is to solve corruption will cost us money, there is an initial capital outlay that has to be made, so austerity isn’t particularly the answer. In the short term we need to increase spending, so that in the medium to longer term we can see major savings.

That is the challenge isn’t it? We need to increase spending, but we cannot trust the people who would actually do the spending, because we know they’ll steal the money.

So we can look at disasters like the Khayelitsha fire, we can see it is costing us more than actually housing those people would, and we can’t agree on fixing it because we can’t trust that the money needed for it won’t just go walkabout.


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