Stop blaming moms for poor housing
Poor black ‘nice-time’ moms catch too much flak for shack fires that put kids’ lives in danger. The blame is misdirected
In September 2018 a terrible tragedy unfolded in Alexandra township, Johannesburg.
Five children were left in a shack while their mothers (two sisters) went out to socialise at a local tavern. A heater set the shack on fire. The eldest child, a 14-year-old, rushed to get assistance, but by the time he returned the shack was engulfed in flames and the young children, aged 7, 5, 4 and 2, were trapped inside. They all died. The two mothers were arrested and charged with negligence and culpable homicide.
Reading between the lines of the media reports, one can discern facts that suggest the mothers aimed to keep their children safe and comfortable while they went out for a social evening. They had locked the shack and left a heater on to keep it warm, and they had a 14-year-old looking after the younger children.
Many families might do this without fear of tragedy and without risk of being accused of culpable homicide if something went wrong.
Yet the official response to the tragedy was one of blame. And as so often happens, it was poor women who were at fault. Women living in poverty (which in SA means black women) are constantly under suspicion and frequently criticised for doing anything that might serve their own interests.
If one goes along with the dominant discourse, poor mothers should not spend money on clothes or hairdressers, and they definitely should not drink alcohol. Their role is to sit quietly in an overcrowded shack watching over their children while they sleep. (Note that there is no mention of fathers, or indeed of men, anywhere in this tragic story. Two-thirds of children in SA do not have a co-resident father. A third don’t even have a father on their birth certificate.)
The local primary school principal described a pattern of neglect and abandonment in a report published under the headline “Parents neglect kids to care for themselves”. In the same story, the spokesperson for Johannesburg Emergency Management Services said there had been an escalating number of incidents where young children were left without supervision or locked up in their homes. “Parents are out having some nice time in shebeens and taverns,” he said. A third public figure to blame the mothers for the deaths of the children was the Gauteng MEC for social development, who was cited as saying parents needed to do more to take care of their children.
A lone countervoice in the reports, the teacher of one of the children, who spoke at the memorial service, said the mothers of the children were good parents.
“Nonhlanhla’s mom brought her child to school each day. She would carry and bring all her children with her each morning. At 1pm each day‚ she was at my door to pick up her child. I want you to know that they took care of their children. Their children were clean and tidy,” she said.
On visiting the house where the children had died, the social development MEC became visibly tearful, saying: “As parents, let’s take care of our children … let’s not choose to go and entertain ourselves. And if we can’t take care of those children, let’s hand them over to government because government has facilities for children.”
State alternative care is indeed an option for children who need to be removed from their families because of abuse and neglect. But the state cannot and should not be providing alternative care for children whose parents leave them with a teenage babysitter because they would like an evening out, or because they need to search for employment during the day.
The obvious problem is that shacks are dangerous, and especially so for children. The solution is about adequate housing and services, not jail for parents and state care for children.
At their worst, shack fires kill people. Even when they do not, they destroy people’s homes and their possessions, decimating their lives. In October 2018, almost a month to the day after the Alex tragedy, a shack fire in Khayelitsha left 4,000 people homeless – the polite euphemism used in the reports is “displaced”, but it is not as if they had another place to go to. They were left with nothing. In a previous shack fire in Khayelitsha, in March 2018, three children were burnt to death.
The South African Child Gauge 2018 includes child-centred development indicators and shows that 1.6 million children in SA live in informal housing. About half of these children are very young: babies, toddlers and preschool children. Shack settlements are notoriously risky places for young children: they tend to be overcrowded, poorly serviced, poorly policed and highly flammable. More than 40% of children living in informal housing do not have a formal electricity connection, or a nearby tap or a toilet on their property.
Service failures such as “energy poverty” pose a threat to children’s health and survival because they force families to use unsafe fuels for heating, cooking and lighting within confined spaces that are already vulnerable to fire. Yet whenever there is a shack fire, investigations invariably focus on the “source” of the fire – in other words, to identify who was to blame.
But the fault is structural. Many families have no choice but to bring up children in places that are hazardous. South African informal settlements were meant to be eradicated or at the very least upgraded by 2014, but this did not happen and is unlikely to happen. The promised deadline has disappeared into the mists of history, as all missed deadlines conveniently do.
In the meantime, the number of people living in shacks is growing because of urban migration (a global trend) and severe housing backlogs. The interim solution is about electrification, readily available water sources, fire-retardant materials, better management of the spacing between shacks and local emergency services – services that even the most enterprising informal residents cannot provide for themselves.
Back in Alexandra, the teacher of one of the young children who perished refused to blame the mothers. “We all make mistakes‚” she said. Perhaps that is an important difference between being rich and poor. When you are poor and informally housed, you cannot afford to make mistakes.
• Katharine Hall is a senior researcher at the Children’s Institute, University of Cape Town, and lead editor of the South African Child Gauge 2018: Children, Families and the State. The 2018 Child Gauge is a partnership between the Children’s Institute, the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Human Development at the University of the Witwatersrand, Unicef South Africa and the Standard Bank Tutuwa Community Foundation. The report is available at: www.ci.uct.ac.za