Cape Town: fire capital

Systems and symptoms

While millions live in dire poverty, the SACP wants us to believe that the main problem is still ‘racism’. Peter Manson reports

During my visit to Cape Town over Christmas and the new year, I was struck by two news stories in particular. The first related to one of the periodic fires that sweep through the townships, destroying scores of shacks, and the second concerns accusations of racism against various individuals and possible legal moves to ban all expressions of racist language.

Western Province, which includes the city of Cape Town, is the only part of South Africa controlled by the opposition Democratic Alliance. That is because it is the only part where black Africans are not in a majority. So-called ‘coloureds’ - a label derived from the apartheid era, referring to people of mixed race - account for around 49% of the population, as against 33% for blacks, 17% for whites and 1% for Asians. Under the apartheid regime many coloureds, most of whom speak Afrikaans as their first language, preferred the evil they knew to majority rule, and this accounts for the fact that the DA - originally a whites-only party, although its current leader, Mmusi Maimane, is far from white - rules the roost in the Cape.

Some coloured people live in shacks, but in general such “informal settlements”, to use the mainstream jargon, are occupied by blacks. There are well over a million shacks in the country as a whole, housing around five million people - and, of course, since they tend to be tightly packed together, any fire can have devastating results.

In November, between 800 and 1,000 shacks were destroyed in this way in Cape Town’s Masiphumelele township and 4,000 people were left homeless. Some rebuilt their shacks on adjacent land, but, during my stay, the DA local authorities sent in the bulldozers. As despairing residents looked on, their homes were destroyed for the second time - this time deliberately. Armed police in riot gear kept them from intervening.

A city official disingenuously claimed: “The attempts to illegally erect structures in Masiphumelele have been made largely by persons ... who were not affected by the fire”. Furthermore, the land they occupied is owned by South African National Parks and is a “protected area”, which is “not suitable for habitation”. Somewhat contradictorily, she added that the “invasions” would have “a negative effect” on the city’s “housing development” efforts, “to the detriment of the legitimate beneficiaries”.1


Apparently men, women and children with nowhere to go must sleep in the open rather than engage in this disgraceful queue-jumping (even if it is on land “not suitable for habitation”). To add to the demonisation of these ‘illegitimate’ shack-dwellers, an allegation was published claiming that “some fires around Masiphumelele ... were related to residents from the informal settlements trying to clear land so that more shacks could be built”.2 Either way, it is obvious that people are desperate.

However, the uncertainty and instability produced by this situation is a cause for concern among elements of capital. For example, someone described as a “businessman [who] has set up a number of charities” was given space in the daily Cape Times to warn of the danger of mass rioting. The writer, Fred Turok, was also worried by the disruption caused to local businesses when the homes of workers they employ are destroyed: “The recent disaster in Masiphumelele,” he wrote, “is a symptom of a much wider problem: how we treat our valuable local workforce who live in townships.”3 Turok points out that the residents are “commonly referred to as ‘illegal squatters’ by the council and other authorities, even though most of them have been here for many years”, where, he says, they have been “working for local businesses and families”.

He claims that after the fire the council provided basic materials (eg, wooden poles, corrugated sheets and a door) to build a 5m x 4m shack - but only to those residents who had a “registered number”, issued by mysterious “community leaders”. However, it seems some people took up “a bigger floor plan area than they were entitled to” and that left those without a registered number “with building materials but no sites to build on”. They had “no option other than to build their shacks in other parts of the wetlands”.

It was in response to this that the bulldozers were sent into the township, which is known by locals as ‘Masi’. When it was pointed out that some people had built “oversized shacks”, the council’s reaction was to demolish some of those too! Turok states: “The city council, its political and employed officials are playing havoc with people’s lives.” He gives the following example:

The shack of a 30-year-old father, who is a local gardener ..., was burnt to the ground. He lost all his belongings, including ... his bicycle to get to work with. This was the third time this has happened to him. He is a ‘no number’ resident or ‘illegal squatter’, even though he has lived in Masi for 13 years ... The shacks were knocked down ... and this young father’s building materials destroyed or stolen while he was at work earning a living.

He declares that these shack-dwellers “provide a really valuable and crucial service for our communities and local businesses”, yet we “afford them virtually no rights”. Turok warns of the “dire consequences” of allowing this situation to continue, reminding readers of “the recent Masi riots that affected us all”.

The following day the same newspaper gave space for a reply to Priya Reddy, a council spokesperson, who repeated allegations about “attempts to illegally erect structures” by people “not affected by the recent fire”. If the “proliferation of this informal settlement” continues, “it will become more dense and therefore more prone to devastating fires”.

Reddy did not say what the homeless are expected to do. But, never mind, the council is taking steps to prevent fires through a campaign whereby “structures in informal settlements are being painted with fire-retardant paint”. However, “The city simply doesn’t have the resources to paint every structure in Cape Town” and hopes that “the private sector and communities themselves will come on board and assist”. If Turok, “a businessman”, wants to make himself really useful, then, instead of making “sweeping statements”, perhaps he might “get involved with our initiative to paint vulnerable structures”.

Despite Turok’s concern about the local workforce, it is clear that the overwhelming majority of shack-dwellers, including those in Masiphumelele, are unemployed. Statistics just released show that, of South Africa’s 36 million people of working age (defined as those between 15 and 64), only 16 million - less than half - are employed. The number of jobless people has more than doubled since the fall of apartheid.4


It is entirely understandable that some Masi residents have accused the white-dominated DA of racism. One “community leader” is quoted as claiming that the city “does not want blacks in the province”.5

The callousness of the DA council has certainly been on display - although homelessness, ‘informal settlements’ and shack fires are, as I have stated, hardly a problem of the Cape alone. But the governing African National Congress - and especially its main cheerleader, the South African Communist Party - take every opportunity to level accusations of racism against the opposition party.

In reality the DA is the descendant of the white liberal Progressive Party, which opposed apartheid, and today it makes a show of stamping down on any sign of nostalgia for the previous regime, let alone racism, within its own ranks. For instance, in September 2015 the party expelled one of its MPs, Dianne Kohler Barnard, merely for sharing a Facebook posting, which read: “Please come back, PW Botha. You were far more honest than many of these ANC rogues.”

She pleaded guilty to bringing the party into disrepute and breaching its social media policy, but appealed against the decision to expel her and was eventually reinstated in December. This prompted ANC spokesperson Zizi Kodwa to declare: “We always knew the initial decision to sack her was just a bluff to deal with the public outcry. The DA will always remain a racist party at its core ...”

Then there is the case of estate agent Penny Sparrow, who earlier this month condemned allegedly unruly behaviour by blacks enjoying themselves over the new year on South Africa’s beaches and openly called them “monkeys” in a Facebook posting. When it turned out she was a DA member, the party promptly issued a condemnatory statement and summarily expelled her. And how about economist Chris Hart, employed by Standard Bank? He wrote on social media: “More than 25 years after apartheid ended, the victims are increasing, along with a sense of entitlement and hatred towards minorities.” Standard Bank’s response was to suspend Hart and issue a statement which read: “The comments made by him are factually incorrect, make inappropriate assumptions about South Africa and have racist undertones.”

But the statements of these two nonentities were seized upon by people like SACP hack S’dumo Dlamini, who is president of the Congress of South African Trade Unions: “Racists like Penny Sparrow and Chris Hart must be arrested and charged,” he declared. Referring obliquely to those like the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, which Cosatu has expelled for daring to withdraw support from the ANC and SACP, he added: “The racist attacks we see are a sign that the enemy is gaining confidence in the face of our own divisions. It is time to unite against the common racist enemies!”

Deputy minister of justice John Jeffery said the government will now redraft a bill on hate crimes to include “hate speech and racist behaviour”. Although president Jacob Zuma has said that a stronger deterrent would be “peer pressure” and the ostracising of racists by society, Jeffery commented: “The original intention was not to criminalise hate speech, which can already be dealt with as a civil matter in the equality courts ... but in light of the current developments we felt ... we need to look at that.” He added that “various forms of punishments” would be considered, “not excluding jail”. While his boss, justice minister Michael Masutha, said that the proposed bill would have to “strike a balance” between discouraging hate speech and allowing for free speech, ANC caucus spokesperson Moloto Mothapo said jailing racists would be an “effective tool”.

For his part, Blade Nzimande, general secretary of the SACP and South Africa’s minister for higher education, also referred to the latest furore at a meeting to commemorate former SACP leader Joe Slovo. Naming Sparrow, he claimed: “The DA is trying to fool the public again by suspending her. Evidence exists beyond any reasonable doubt that there is home for such racism in the DNA of the DA.”

Nzimande went on to declare that not only racism, but any “expression of support for apartheid” must be “criminalised”. He added: “There are still many internet-based media comment sections that nevertheless continue to accommodate comments that are racist, sexist, offensive and contain insults and hate speech. We called on and wrote to the South African Human Rights Commission to investigate the problem.”

The difficulty for Nzimande is that “The workplace remains a pyramid that is predominantly white … at the top and black at the bottom. This social engineering is not a product of the acts of nature, but a long process of racist exploitation and privileges. It is this that the DA and its like are defending in opposition to democratic transformation ...”

Yes, the legacy of the particular form of capitalism that was apartheid lives on. It is on display not only in the workplace, but in ‘informal settlements’ like Masiphumelele. Overwhelmingly those at “the bottom” - in society as a whole, not just “the workplace”, are black. But the response of the SACP is not to target the root cause of this oppression and superexploitation - ie, the system of capital itself - but to focus on particular symptoms. It hardly helps when individual blacks are promoted to top positions in the state and in business, nor would it help if more of those at the bottom were white.

The focus on racism serves as a useful diversion for Nzimande and co, which enables them to avoid championing the cause of the working class - black, coloured and white - in the here and now. And in fact the entire establishment - black, coloured and white - is formally committed to the eradication of racism. In response to the two trivial social-media postings I have quoted one of the country’s top newspaper publishers, Independent Media, is to launch a new campaign entitled ‘Racism Stops with Me’. But it is to do so in partnership with another organisation - the ‘communist’-led Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers Union!



1. Cape Times December 23 2015.

2. Weekend Argus January 2 2016.

3. Cape Times December 28 2015.

4. www.statssa.gov.za/publications/P0277/P0277September2015.pdf.

5. Cape Times December 23.