Shack fires are exacerbating South Africa’s severe housing crisis, according to Professor Hope Hangwelani Magidimisha-Chipungu, a town planning and infrastructure damage specialist at UKZN.
She spoke out after a recent fire at the Kennedy Road informal settlement in Durban that destroyed 1,101 homes, leaving 1,710 adults and 647 children homeless.
“The lack of adequate housing, together with overcrowded living conditions in informal settlements, creates a conducive environment for the occurrence and rapid spread of fires,” said Magidimisha-Chipungu.
She added that these fires pose significant threats to occupants’ safety and well-being, often resulting in loss of lives, injuries, and the destruction of already scarce belongings.
Factors contributing to shack fires include unsafe cooking and heating methods, the close proximity of shacks, and limited access to fire prevention and firefighting resources.
The flammable materials used in shack construction also increase their vulnerability to fires. “The consequences extend beyond immediate destruction, as affected individuals and families are left displaced, worsening the housing crisis and exacerbating their socio-economic hardships,” she added.
Addressing the issue requires improving living conditions in informal settlements, upgrading infrastructure, providing access to electricity and safe cooking facilities, and implementing fire prevention measures. In addition to these steps, long-term solutions that address socio-economic inequalities and provide sustainable, affordable housing options are essential.
Magidimisha-Chipungu highlighted that South Africa’s housing shortage is severe, with millions of housing units needed.
Despite government initiatives like the Reconstruction and Development Programme, the backlog persists due to bureaucratic inefficiencies, limited resources, and competing priorities.
Resolving the housing shortage necessitates significant investments, effective policies, collaboration, and a focus on root causes.
Humanitarian aid organization Gift of the Givers has been responding to a number of fires in informal settlements. In one weekend in July alone, they responded to fires at four different locations, providing hot meals, blankets, toiletries, and baby care packs to those affected.
The organization also assists victims in reconstructing their homes with building materials.
Meanwhile, the eThekwini Municipality stated that the KZN Human Settlements Department is currently capturing a beneficiary list for the provision of building materials for those affected by the Kennedy Road tragedy.
Affected residents have been housed in a local community hall, but many prefer to stay near their sites out of fear of losing them.
Professor Sultan Khan, a sociologist at UKZN, emphasized the urgent need for formal human settlements in South African cities.
He noted that planning a human settlement takes approximately eight years, meaning a generation could grow up in an informal settlement before enjoying the comfort of a new home. He also pointed out that these new settlements often lack basic amenities necessary for human development.