This week, SJ met with a community member from Ramaphosa settlement in Cape Town. The story below shares her perspective on some of the struggles this community is facing.
The fear of fire haunts residents of informal settlements across South Africa. Fire services in Cape Town will be called to an informal settlement fire on average once a day. Many more go unreported. But with no municipal services, residents in settlements like Ramaphosa feel that they are particularly at risk.
Ramaphosa lies to the south-east of the city centre. Founded in February 2018, its residents came from across Cape Town to build homes in the area. Many were fleeing from the rent that crippled their budgets every month.
Babalwa was amongst the first residents to build in Ramaphosa, and has since been elected onto the local committee that governs the settlement. Initially, she and other leaders had tried to ensure that there were spaces between people’s homes and streets running through the area. ‘We kept telling people’, she explained, ‘we are going to need ambulance, we are going to need police, we are going to need fire fighters. Now we must give access to those people otherwise we will be putting ourselves in danger’. Ultimately, however, this vision was compromised: a combination of regular evictions and pressure for the land meant that the settlement grew dense. The committee were able to safeguard a limited number of roads coming in and out of the settlement, but this was not the settlement they had initially imagined.
Thirteen months on, and the community at Ramaphosa still lacks any municipal services. Whilst some have improvised informal electricity connections most are left dependent on paraffin and open fires for heat and candles for light. Moreover, while some homes have clubbed together to extend a local water pipe into their yards, many rely on buckets filled at a tap that lies on the far side of an arterial road. Two residents have already died trying to access that water. The life they are leading, Babalwa states, is as dangerous as it is undignified.
The combination of candles, stoves, limited water, and dense dwellings in Ramaphosa leave residents at high risk of fire. ‘It is dangerous, Babalwa explains, ‘but we are using them because we have no option’.
Last January, that risk became a reality. The fire appears to have started when a child knocked over a candle at home. Residents emptied their water buckets onto the blaze that ensued, racing to taps or a nearby run-off for refills, but it was not enough. Their efforts managed to contain the blaze but it could not save the home, which was reduced to ashes.
In the wake of the fire, Babalwa claims, people reached out to the city for assistance. The poles and zinc sheets that are usually issued in the aftermath of a fire, however, were not forthcoming. Left with ‘only the clothes on their back’ the family had to rely on help from their neighbours for blankets, food, temporary shelter and the materials needed to rebuild.
Since the fire, community members have continued to lobby the city for basic services. Babalwa’s file of the letters and emails sent has grown, along with the frustration of the community. Meetings with city officials, she argues, have led to little concrete change. Matters are complicated, she has been told, by the fact that the land they are occupying is privately owned as well as the number of settlements that pre-date Ramaphosa, which are also waiting for services.
‘We know that we are not the first informal settlement’, Babalwa reflected, ‘but the needs are not the same. Some they are asking for electricity they also have water and toilets. But us, we have nothing, nothing… the way we are sitting here is disgusting’.
As winter edges closer in Cape Town, Babalwa says, the residents’ anger is increasing. Shorter days, higher winds, and colder temperatures heighten the struggles that residents without basic services and increase their risk of fire even further. Unless the community leadership can show residents that the government is listening, Babalwa states, they are likely to turn to protest. ‘That is what we do when we are tired’, she explained. Disrupting the life of commuters was the only way that residents felt that could get the city to pay attention to their lives, and the conditions in which they lived them.