Emergency Responses Miss Opportunities To Build Up Communities

small houses burn in the darkness
This scene was created by affordablehousingaction.org and is licensed under CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication

This is part of a series that looks at housing and homelessness in South Africa and Canada. It might be a source of inspiration/direction for housing efforts in either or both countries. Both countries have made formal commitments to achieve the right to adequate housing. Readers elsewhere who are calling for a right to adequate housing may also find these posts useful.

In September this year, thousands of people in Pretoria lost their homes when a fire swept through Cemetery View, the informal settlement where they live1.

From the settled safety of a home, it is easy to imagine how this could be a devastating blow. Yet, peoples’ responses to emergencies differ enormously. Sebene Selassie, who worked in refugee camps in Africa, was surprised by the different ways that refugees responded when they arrived. Some were despondent, uncertain what their next steps would be. Others were angry. Still others were hopeful. Selassie observed that individual responses were not based on objective considerations — how much someone had lost was not a good way to predict people’s attitude to being in a refugee camp2.

Following the fire in Pretoria, some residents returned to their old homes and started rebuilding as soon as the fire was out. Officials were critical, arguing that the early returners were invading a crime scene. But based on Selassie’s observations of refugees, it is likely that early returners likely saw the situation much differently: the sooner they could return to their homes, the sooner they could get on with rebuilding their lives.

In 2016, fire swept through Imizamo Yethu, an informal settlement in Cape Town. There, officials planned a reconstruction project to replace the destroyed homes. Everyone who lost their home would have a new one to move into. The plan met with anger.

Anger is also consistent with Selassie’s observations in refugee camps. Locally based research by Fiona Anciano and Laurence Piper helps to understand why people were angry. Homes in Imizamo Yethu were different sizes. Also, some of Imizamo Yethu’s residents had operated businesses from their homes. Examples include renting out spare rooms, offering products for sale and running informal pubs. After the fire, people were faced with losing their incomes. They weren’t impressed by the ‘one size fits all’ solution, which would effectively mean the end of their business.

Anciano and Piper are based at the University of the Western Cape. They believe the angry response in Imizamo Yethu might have been prevented if officials had consulted with the people who were displaced by the fire. Anciano and Piper recommend consultations and other steps to build bridges between officials and residents. Ignoring what people think and need is not only a ticket to anger. Anciano and Piper argue it’s a path to distrust in governments altogether.

In Canada, as elsewhere, emergency responses are organized on the assumption that most people can collect themselves, make plans and move on. Selassie’s experience in refugee camps indicates that the emergency responses need to be prepared for the stuck people and the angry people too. This observation will be familiar to the Canadian Red Cross, which has years of experience providing assistance right after an emergency.

Anciano and Piper’s research will be beneficial for government emergency managers in Canada because it lays out how emergency plans can support or undermine the credibility of the agencies they represent.

You can read more about Anciano and Piper’s research in The Conversation: How cities can approach redesigning informal settlements after disasters

Here are titles of the posts in this affordablehousingaction.org series, which are being published this week:


  1. Read more about the fire and its aftermath in news24: Pretoria fire: Three people dead, thousands left homeless after Cemetery View fire
  2. You can read more about Sebene Selassie’s work at goodreads.