‘My dad always used to say, “Fight fire with fire” which is why he got thrown out of the fire brigade.’ [Harry Hill]

Yesterday, i posted this as my status on Facebook:

What is happening with the fires sweeping across Cape Town is a tragedy and worth attention, mobilisation and investment and it’s been incredible watching Cape Town rise to the occasion. i think it is also important to reflect, even for just a minute, on what our response has been on numerous occasions in the past where serious shack settlement fires have happened and many have been killed, because the fact that they seem very different, i feel, has a lot to say to us about us. [Not talking either/or, but both/and]. Discuss.

Naturally the internet exploded [well, not quite, but we did get some lively discussion going and one unfriend and some Taylor Swift therapy followed]:

Shortly after that we attended the Ron Sider meeting at the Warehouse that i shared some thoughts from yesterday and bumped into my friend Craig Stewart [who runs the Warehouse] and he was just about to jump on and share some thoughts on my status. But instead, he offered them to me to stick up here and this is an incredibly helpful perspective.

craig

Brett and a few other friends of mine posted comments over the last few days expressing frustration at the apparent disconnect, on social media at least, between the responses of people in Cape Town to the current fires blazing all around us and the regular fires that destroy homes, livelihoods and people a few times a month each summer in Cape Town.

Whilst I recognise the tension I haven’t found myself particularly affected by it. This is even though I consider myself someone who cares pretty passionately about people who are poor and the historic and current injustices of our country.

This is partially because I think there may well be a false equivalency between the fires but its also because I’ve been involved over the last couple of years in a city wide church based disaster response network under the banner of the Consultation of Christian Churches in Cape Town. In this role I’ve engaged with all of the larger fire disasters in the City over the last few years and a fair number of other ones. In each case there was a good response, even sometimes an overwhelming response.

For the most part the fire department, disaster management and civil society respond well and effectively to these fires and the crises are addressed quickly and effectively.

As is the case with mountain fires often the societal response is more rooted in what we think is needed rather than what is actually needed and that can create problems of its own. Just ask the Cape Town fire department about the huge amounts of donated clothing lying in warehouse because it can’t be used anywhere.

But my experience is that for significant fires and floods affecting people across this city, the people of this city are willing to sacrificially work and donate to resolve the crisis. But then we get on with our lives and forget about the every day disasters of people’s daily lives in this city. Once we’ve got people back to the awful reality of day to day life we move on.

The problem of course is that for a disaster response to be effective it should be rapid, appropriate and short lived but the disaster of everyday life is going to take much more than that. What would it take for us to sustain a sacrificial, coordinated, all hands on deck effort over the next few decades that would see us dramatically change the face of this city and nation?

In moments of disaster we put aside expectations, entitlements and comforts and we stare the situation in the face and deal with it. Our current reality will require such an effort but we will need to sustain it.

When a fynbos mountain burns it is part of the cycle of life of that mountain. And the burning itself initiates growth and sprouting and life that has being lying dormant for many years. Life will explode across the mountains over the next few months. We need a fire like that to burn through this city – a justice revival fire perhaps.

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