On Thursday 17 August, two hundred residents of various Durban shack settlements joined prominent religious, academic and political figures in a memorial service for Mr. Zithulele Dhlomo, 70, who died in a sudden fire last Saturday.
Broken windows let in the chilly night air at the Kennedy Road community hall, where the memorial was held. Activists along with Bishop Reuben Phillip and poet Dennis Brutus called for substantive and immediate improvement to housing and services. Amongst red-white-and-black banners that read: “We demand decent housing,” mourners lit candles and sang, intermittently dancing and toyi-toiying.
Residents blame the death of Dhlomo and that of a one-year old child last year on the failure of the local government to follow through with promised electricity and housing. Brutus, a veteran activist who served out a sentence on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela, spoke to the circumstances of Dhlomo’s death. He said, “Tonight, we are talking about two kinds of service: a memorial service for the man who died and service to the people for housing, water and electricity. The people were told that when we have freedom, services would be provided. But we know that tonight there are people shivering in the cold and darkness.”
Dhlomo lived in Kennedy Road for twenty years; he was one of the longest standing residents of the community. He shared a two-room shack with four other families and was in the back room when a candle, used for light after dark in the un-electrified settlement, set alight the plastic sheet walls. Unable to escape quickly enough he burned to death. He is survived by his children and grandchildren, whom he helped support by collecting scrap metal for resale.
Bishop Phillip spoke of life in the shack settlements. After quoting John’s Gospel, he said, “Life is about having water, life is about having shelter, life is about having food, about having healthcare so that people do not die from HIV/AIDS and so that children can grow up and have a healthy life. But when we look around us today, where you live, we do not see this life. We are twelve years into our democracy and yet so many people in our country are poor, unemployed and do not live in decent housing.” The Bishop promised his support to the people of Kennedy and Foreman Roads and said that he would appeal to other leaders in the church community to do the same.
Speakers at the memorial addressed concerns about the value of life in the shacks. Orlean Naidoo, who spoke on behalf of Chatsworth flatdwellers, said, “We lose our loved ones and nobody cares – just us. The government forgets that we are human beings.” Emergency services at the scene of Dhlomo’s death did not completely remove the body, despite pleas from family and neighbors. Dhlomo’s lower arms and leg, burnt almost to the bone, were found in the ash and rubble the following day. After numerous phone calls the eThekwini Municipality’s disaster management service arrived at Kennedy Road a few days later with a blanket and two tins of canned food for each of the four families that lost their home and loved one in the fire.
Another concern raised at the memorial service was the criminalization of shack dwellers by government officials and police, who have blamed the community for irresponsible use of candles or cooking fires. Area-police have also resorted to harassment and violence at demonstrations held by Abahlali baseMjondolo, a shack dwellers’ movement that has organized around issues of housing, land and services. Speaking on services and criminalization, Mr. Jakuja from the Juba Place settlement said, “Better to lock us up in jail – in jail there is light, in jail there is water, in jail there is a toilet.”
The death of Dhlomo recalls a deep resentment at Kennedy Road over past shack fires, particularly the conflagration last October that killed one-year-old Mhlengi Khumalo. Three weeks ago another twenty-six shacks burnt down in nearby Jadhu Place. Also destroyed in the blaze were many difficult or impossible to replace personal belongings, such as clothes, school uniforms, textbooks and identity documents. Hundreds of people are left homeless by shack fires in Durban each year, which happen most often in the dry and cold winter months.
In response to these fires, Abahlali provided food, clothing and building materials for the affected families. Township residents in the Durban-metro area such as Chatsworth and Wentworth also offered donations. S’bu Zikode, the chairperson of Abahlali said that the efforts of the shack dwellers’ movement have improved the lives of people in Kennedy and Foreman Roads but that “I feel very oppressed when I’m doing the job that the government is supposed to do.”
In 2001, the eThekwini Municipality suspended the provision of electricity to the shack settlements, a matter that will soon be battled out in court. In response to Dhlomo’s death, Abahlali plans to hold mass demonstrations across Durban and Pinetown to demand immediate electrification of the shacks. Of the demonstrations, Brutus commented that “It is a failure of the politicians – they failed to keep their promises. Our job is to remind them of those promises, to demand those promises are delivered. Zithulele Dhlomo and Mhlengi Khumalo died because they were without the electricity that was promised to them.”
* Kerry Chance is a PhD student at the University of Chicago and Visitor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.