Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille, foreground, and Western Cape Premier Helen Zille

Cape Town -

Prominent residents have written to Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille and Western Cape Premier Helen Zille asking them to urgently address the issue of fires in Masiphumelele and to prevent “the escalating disparities between rich and poor”.

Professor Andy Dawes from the UCT faculty of humanities and Dr Lutz van Dijk, co-founder of the Hokisa Children’s Home, have written to the city following several fires in Masiphumelele which have left seven dead since December.

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu has endorsed the letter, while Rivonia trialist Professor Denis Goldberg, who lives in Hout Bay, has also signed it.

The letter has been received by the premier and mayor’s offices and has been signed by 80 people from organisations and areas in the south Peninsula.

On December 1, Masiphumelele was gutted by a fire in which five people died and 200 homes were destroyed. Another fire broke out in the wetlands informal settlement days later on December 7.

On Christmas Day, a woman died in a fire which destroyed 20 homes.

In the latest fire, on Tuesday, one man died and 27 shacks were destroyed.

The city said 600 people had been displaced, and it provided residents with building materials and food parcels.

The letter writers say food parcels and starter kits are not enough to ensure social justice and appealed to the city to take urgent steps to eradicate poverty and improve conditions in Masiphumelele, which is near Kommetjie.

In the letter, Van Dijk and Dawes said the situation was worsening each year.

Van Dijk and Dawes, with the support of the other signatories, are urging the city to take three key steps to prevent the “escalating disparities between rich and poor exploding in our faces, be it with growing crime or political extremism”.

“It is unacceptable that a community of more than 40 000 residents (is) locked in by walls on two sides with just one access road. The chaos when emergency vehicles attempt to access Kommetjie Road means risking lives,” the letter said.

The writers called on the city to implement “reblocking” in Masiphumelele, a new city initiative where informal settlements are redesigned, making the pathways between shacks big enough to allow emergency vehicles through. The city also supplies fire-resistant material to rebuild shacks.

The city has piloted the project in a Milnerton informal settlement, resulting in fewer fires and flooding incidents, and plans to roll out the project in a number of informal settlements this year.

Van Dijk said: “Proactive planning to ‘reblock’ shacks so as to create access roads for emergency vehicles and basic services is essential.

“Access to basic services will reduce the risk of disease from waste and polluted water. We offer to assist with fund-raising to rebuild shacks with fire-resisting material. We believe this can be achieved before the next winter in 2014.”

They are also calling for a second access road to be built in the area, saying this had been promised for years and was meant to be constructed last year.

Their third call is for the city to conduct a land audit to assess how much land in and around Masiphumelele is city-owned and suitable for housing.

“There has not been enough political will to identify land in our area suitable for housing for lower income groups. There has also not been enough political will to invest in infrastructure,” Van Dijk said.

Ward councillor for the area Felicity Purchase said while she understood the residents’ plea, the city had been trying to do what they were suggesting.

“The city agrees that re-blocking has to be done and we have made two attempts to do so but the community did not co-operate. On one occasion we came in with the equipment and were ready to clear the site and then people invaded the land.

“I understand people’s desperation to get to the land before anyone else, but community buy-in is key to re-blocking,” Purchase said.

She said a tender would soon be advertised for construction of 350 houses and a new crèche, while the application for a second access road had been turned down by the provincial government a few years ago over environmental concerns.

The city has since reapplied to build a second access road as part of an upcoming housing project in the area.

The executive director for city human settlements, Seth Maqetuka, said the city had a number of interventions that could address access and services, and reblocking may not be the only option.

He said interventions were dependent on factors such as land availability and suitability, densities, environmental issues and availability of funding.

“The city also has to consider that… there may be other informal settlements which have a greater need for immediate interventions to address flooding, fires, and access problems.”

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Cape Times