Designs against shack fires

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Copy of CT_oped valhala0 Independent Newspapers Trapped: While the poorest South Africans wait amid talk of a better tomorrow, they remain trapped in a cycle of predictable misery, and life-threatening shack fires, because we do not possess the political honesty to admit our failings, says the writer. File photo: David Ritchie.

Cape Town - With the recent fires in Valhalla Park, in which an estimated 1400 people lost their homes, the public bears witness once again to petty pre-election politics and the handing out of more food parcels and shack-building material to fire-affected residents.

Local press and social media are abuzz with the words “Cape Town World Design Capital 2014” and “Live design, transform life”. Our mayor has taken the helm of this ship. Great stuff, indeed. But let us just take a moment to reflect on a few home truths before succumbing to the heady mix of catchphrases and cappuccinos.

On November 1 last year, the city published a long-awaited tender regarding alternative, innovative “design and build” proposals for informal settlement shack fire interventions. For the sake of clarity it was tender 86G/2013/14. The tender was published as a tiny back page piece. Blink and you would have missed it.

On the same day, November 1, the mayor announced the official programme of the WDC2014 campaign. This programme made headlines in both print and social media.

Strangely, however no mention is or was ever made of tender 86G/2013/14. It floated gently past 99 percent of the “Live design, transform life” designers and the WDC2014.

Something is amiss. Shack fires dominate headlines for a good reason: they all but wipe out our poorest communities, repeatedly. Some have experienced this three times in a single year. As a city, we bear witness to the poorest and most vulnerable among us bearing the brunt of this, and we wonder how we can help.

Why is it then that tender 86G/2013/14, issued by the City of Cape Town, the same city leading and implementing the WDC2014, would seem to be unaligned in this instance to its own campaign?

Is our city saying that design and shack fires are not connected or have little relevance to each other? Surely not. This would be too cynical and too illogical to make sense. However, despite numerous attempts to find an answer to this question via formal correspondence with the city, it remains unanswered.

Is it because shack fires and the need for safer, more dignified shelter goes straight to the issue of housing delivery? Both the ANC and DA avoid meaningful debate on this issue pre-elections because neither party has been able to deliver on its promise of formal housing. Pre-election time is reflection time for voters. It’s just easier to avoid the elephant in the room by bickering about food parcels. But will those affected be politically hoodwinked for the 20th year running?

Shack fires can be prevented. It is not rocket science. There are simple, affordable and low-tech ways of preventing the spread of flame, even in wind-driven conditions. The design challenge centres on containing the source flame to the internal boundaries of the structure. However, this is not the real challenge.

The challenge is a political one, namely to get the government to invest in the on-site upgrading of temporary shelter, meaning the pre-emptive and structured reorganising of informal settlement structures that are fireproof, dry and insulated. Opportunities for low-tech food security should be explored and piloted as a parallel process.

The challenge is not one of building of temporary relocation areas (think Blikkiesdorp) quicker, better and faster for the city. Taxpayers are not interested in funding prisons for the human soul. We want to pursue the notion of achievable people-led design responses that are attainable, that create jobs and that can only come through dialogue which is followed by action.

A four-year-old boy is burnt to death in a shack fire in Cape Town in the early hours of the morning while his father is out looking for a toilet. How do we break this cycle of madness? Surely it will not be through handing out more food parcels, more shack “starter kits” and continued denials? People living at risk to shack fires need protection now. The last thing they need is divisive, political bickering. It’s time to ask questions.

After all we have struggled for, what more basic and fundamental right do we have other than the right to safety and dignified shelter? And can this be delivered in brick form only? Beneficiary communities are not passive recipients, but partners with the city. They are constantly innovating and designing within their limited resources. Given these challenges, there is a proactive action that underlines their demand for fire-resistant shelter, a livelihood and basic services.

Our civil servants have consistently refused to engage in meaningful debate around this because it infers a radical policy change which contradicts the “promise of formal housing”. It requires the painful admission that formal housing for all will not come tomorrow and that it hasn’t come for nearly two decades, and that during this time the problem has become worse. While our city’s poorest wait amid talk of a better tomorrow, they remain trapped in a cycle of predictable misery because we don’t possess the political honesty to admit our failings.

Instead of honest debate around these deeply painful realities, we are offered soapbox bickering about which political party “handed out food parcels first”. It’s an entirely irrelevant and illogical argument – like arguing about the colour of a man’s T-shirt while watching him drown. If we want to save lives and livelihoods, we must separate shack fires and flooding responses from the doldrums of formal housing delivery in order to get on with offering the real, the “can-do-now”, and not the mirage of a vision sold to the poorest in order to win votes.

Each time an argument has been made for the more formal, pre-emptive, incremental, on-site upgrading of temporary shelter, the government responds by saying that cost remains a prohibitive factor. Yet each time there’s a devastating shack fire, the cost of responding to it is the last consideration – this despite the huge resources required, the loss of life and the loss of possessions and livelihoods of our city’s poorest. It’s not a question of “what does it cost to do?” but rather a question of “what does it cost to not do it?”

On a more positive side, the city has recently formally adopted the principles of blocking and re-blocking. The WDC2014 has also supported this policy by recognising associated WDC2014 project submissions, and all kudos to it for doing so. But again it is faced with serious challenges if it aims to make a long-term impact here.

The WDC2014 runs for 12 months. Informal settlements have been waiting on the promise of formal housing for 19 years and nine months. How does the notion of innovation and creativity prevail here?

Having accepted the challenge to be the WDC2014 and embrace design, how will the city navigate design innovations through and past the constraints of supply chain management without flouting the rules of the Municipal Financial Management Act?

Simply put, getting the innovative and creative design responses to flow and generate the momentum required to affect real and lasting change (policy change) through such a bureaucracy will be like trying to push a dam full of water through a pin-hole.

Does the WDC2014 have the necessary influence to affect real social change from within a system run on hierarchy, as opposed to free and liberated thought? Surely this, too, will become a challenge.

Still, the opportunities to engage meaningfully are all there. They start with dialogue, talking openly and honestly, painful as this might be. Design, therefore, becomes an act of “heart”, of human kindness, of listening, of hearing and of responding. If the required response is one of policy change, then design and the act of space-making become political acts as much as they are design undertakings.

For political acts of design to affect real change, they need to be implemented. We, therefore, need people in power who can achieve this. People who choose dialogue over an attitude of “might is right”. Dialogue as a means to defuse protest and dialogue as a basic human right. I suspect the city will need to make this choice soon.

Hopefully it will choose dialogue, and hopefully it will take the WDC2014 along with it each step of the way. Hopefully the WDC2014 will be a design platform for all citizens of the city, and hopefully the extended communities outside of the City Bowl will be able to resonate equally with the grand slogan “Live design, transform life”. -Cape Times

Lamb is an award-winning environmental activist, designer and Cape Town resident. He has more than 17 years’ experience working for both government and NGOs, including the Working for Water Programme, the World Wildlife Fund, SANParks and Ukuvuka Operation Firestop.


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