Space and survival : the aftermath of a fire disaster in a Cape Town informal settlement
This study is located in the Joe Slovo informal settlement, Langa, Cape Town. This is a settlement much like many other townships in South Africa in that it is a disaster-prone, marginalised community. On the 15 January 2005 a fire ravaged the area, destroying 2 590 dwellings and leaving 12 950 people homeless. This qualitative study attempted to explore the personal perspectives of the survivors of this shack fire within the wider context of communal and socio-political variables. A number of interviews were conducted, some with the fire survivors, and others with service providers in the field of disaster management. Conservation of Resources (COR) theory was found to be a useful lens through which to analyse the data. The fire event itself is shown to have been a precipitant of a far longer and more complex chain of events and ongoing struggles for survival. Reactions to the fire and subsequent events, furthermore, must be understood at a number of levels – including at inter-personal and inter-group levels. The principles and corollaries of COR theory enable a deeper exploration of the disaster especially in terms of resource loss and the implications of survivors having been disadvantaged prior to the fire taking place. A number of pre-event issues are presented in order for this context to be fully understood. Two obstacles to community intervention are emphasised as key. First, the reality of what COR theory terms ‘communities within communities’ has implications for survivor behaviour. Second, the focus on the acute aftermath of the fire, and what COR theory terms the ‘avoidance of long-term needs’ is also crucial. COR theory facilitated the visibility of a link between the data and the use of space at an intergroup level. Despite the abolition of apartheid, segregation between groups in South Africa remains high. The current study made use of the social psychology of segregation to explore the inter-group conflict that emerged as the most salient and ongoing feature of this disaster. Although the current study is exploratory, it is hoped that it will encourage future research into the interface between space, inter-group relations and disaster.