Santam/Cape Argus Ukuvuka Operation Firestop (IFFN No. 25)

Santam / Cape Argus Ukuvuka Operation Firestop

(IFFN No. 25, July 2001, p. 111-115)

The wake-up call

Textfeld:  As shocked Capetonians watched their mountains burn in January 2000, the thought in every mind was that something urgent had to be done to prevent such devastation from ever occurring again. The terrifying sight of the flames was etched into the minds of all who witnessed the fires. For days the air over the Cape Peninsula was heavy with smoke. Traffic moved at a crawl, emergency services’ sirens shrieked and helicopter engines throbbed from dawn to dusk. The situation was extremely serious, but if the wind had behaved just slightly differently, the outcome could have been totally catastrophic. Clearly, a plan was needed to protect lives and land during inevitable future fires.

Crisis can lead to dramatic action, encouraging people to co-operate in new and creative ways. The response to this disaster was speedy, dynamic and powerful. Busy people shared a vision of maximum fire protection and restored ecological integrity in the Peninsula. They gave willingly of their time to translate this vision into a professional business plan, a plan that would find resources and co-ordinate how various authorities would act.
Thus, the energy released by the fire gave birth to the aptly named Ukuvuka: Operation Firestop Campaign (Ukuvuka is a Xhosa word meaning ‘to wake up’), bringing together representatives of government, private enterprise and the media in a partnership unprecedented in South Africa.

The partners

The public sector members of the Ukuvuka: Operation Firestop Campaign are the National Government (represented by the Working for Water programme), the Western Cape Government, SA National Parks, the South Peninsula Municipality, the City of Cape Town and the Cape Metropolitan Council, which has committed 30 million Rand (R) to the campaign. Other public sector organisations are contributing staff support and expertise. The campaign’s alien clearing and ecological rehabilitation goals link closely with those of the Cape Peninsula National Park, with its generous funding from the Global Environmental Facility and the Working for Water programme.
Major private sector sponsorships have come from Santam (R20m, believed to be the largest single donation ever made to a South African environmental project), the Cape Argus (R5.5m), Nedbank (R5m) and Total (R4m). In addition, local companies and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) South Africa have offered the campaign free services, ranging from the production of advertising material to legal assistance.
Ministers Ronnie Kasrils (Water Affairs and Forestry) and Valli Moosa (Environmental Affairs and Tourism), Deputy Minister Cheryl Gillwald (Justice), Western Cape Premier Gerald Morkel and Mayor Peter Marais are among the political heavyweights who are backing what is formally called the Santam/Cape Argus Ukuvuka: Operation Firestop Campaign. The campaign team involves all three spheres of government and unites representatives of all major political groupings. Indeed, a particular feature to date has been the maturity with which these representatives have ensured that the campaign remains above political and institutional differences. Those involved point out that without this maturity there would have been competing, wasteful and ad hoc responses to the fire. This bringing together of often conflicting interests is already hailed as one of the campaign’s major successes.
The campaign’s activities are governed by a Board, managed by a steering committee and overseen by independent trustees of the Ukuvuka Trust Fund. The campaign does not carry out ecological restoration work itself but co-ordinates and funds projects under the control of SA National Parks or the local authority, the City of Cape Town.

The objectives

Ukuvuka: Operation Firestop aims to significantly reduce the risk of damage and danger from wildfires in the Cape Peninsula.
The first key target area is the land and its plants, where the aim is to:

  •   control invading alien plants; and
  •   rehabilitate fire-damaged areas.

The second key area is communities and individuals, by helping to:

  • create employment, training and poverty relief for disadvantaged people;
  • protect the most vulnerable communities from fire; and
  •  promote co-operation and social cohesion between communities.

Thirdly, institutions will be assisted to:

  •  implement integrated fire management plans; and
  • manage the urban edge.

The Ukuvuka Campaign has a four-year mandate (ends March 2004) to achieve its goals. Key elements of the campaign include an effective communications and education programme, and an accountable administration.
The lessons learned about effective biodiversity conservation linked to social delivery will be passed on, so that the campaign becomes a role model for similar projects elsewhere in the country.

Working with the land and its plants

Since January 2000, much work has already been done to clear alien plants and rehabilitate public land. After the fires, the immediate need was for emergency measures to stabilise burned slopes, as these will only be fully secure once the natural vegetation has grown back. The spectre of post-fire flooding and mudslides was much in the minds of people who had experienced this in Glencairn and Fish Hoek the previous year. To prevent further damage and danger, the City of Cape Town worked quickly to identify 34 high-risk sites, and by the end of June 2000 they had put in place numerous anti-erosion structures, including silt curtains, sandbags and stone gabions.
Helped by a below average rainfall, this operation was a resounding success. Now, the Ukuvuka: Operation Firestop Campaign is developing community-based nurseries to build up stocks of indigenous plants to promote the regrowth of plants in these areas.
The longer term, and more substantial, problem is the presence of invading alien vegetation. To date, some 750 tree and 8000 other plant species have been imported to South Africa for use as crops, timber, firewood, barriers or for ornamental purposes. Most cause no trouble, but 198 of them have been declared weeds and invader species.
Uncontrolled, these aggressive alien plants tend to reproduce rapidly. They are thirstier than our well-adapted indigenous plants and consume billions of litres of precious water each year.
Historically, both the City of Cape Town had taken action against invasive aliens and made significant strides, while currently the Cape Peninsula National Park commits more than R10 million annually to invasive alien clearing. Freeing water is a good enough justification for a war against weeds, but another is to limit the volume of plant material available to burn in the event of a fire.
As the Peninsula found to its cost, the intensity of uncontrolled wildfires increases substantially when fire-prone aliens take root among the indigenous plants. The fuel load increases and densely invaded areas become impenetrable to firefighters, increasing the risk of disaster.
Urbanisation, agriculture and forestry have already swallowed up almost one third of the 90 000 km2 Cape Floral Kingdom, and what remains (mostly in mountain areas) is threatened by invading alien plants. Indeed, these plants are the single greatest threat to the floral kingdom, regarded as the world’s ‘hottest hotspot’ for biological diversity.
Since March 2000, more than 1000 ha of alien plants have already been cleared with Ukuvuka: Operation Firestop Campaign funding, and a firebreak is being created along the 200 km boundary of the Cape Peninsula National Park. One of the campaign’s first priorities was a study to identify private properties at risk, and it is working with the local authority to advise these property owners about how best to fireproof their homes.

What this means for landowners:

Existing regulations require landowners to get rid of invasive alien plants, and the laws are becoming much tougher. But in fact it’s in everyone’s best interests to deal with these plants as quickly as possible: the longer they are ignored, the more invasive they become and the more costly to remove. The campaign’s extension officers are available to identify invasive trees and plants that must go, help find suitable contractors and oversee the clearing operation.

Some stands of alien trees have special appeal  because of their historical or cultural significance, or their recreational use. They will be spared, or phased out over a gradual period. Forestry, responsible for a sizeable percentage of alien infestation, will continue in the Peninsula, but plantations will be managed very responsibly. And some hard realities will not be ignored: because poor communities have such a pressing need for fuel, some carefully controlled woodlots of alien species may be grown to provide firewood.
It is important to remember that not all alien plants are under attack – only those deemed to be a problem. Some people react emotionally when established trees are felled, but the Ukuvuka: Operation Firestop Campaign is going out of its way to explain the threat to our rich indigenous vegetation and the increased fire risk if the spread of invasive alien plants remains unchecked.

Working with communities and individuals

Employment and training

One of the Ukuvuka: Operation Firestop Campaign’s key objectives is to create job opportunities for as many disadvantaged people as possible. Fortunately, eradicating alien invasive vegetation is very labour intensive, and cutting down trees is only the first step. The job is not complete until all the unwanted plants have been removed or burnt, and careful follow-up clearing done to prevent regrowth – usually over several years. All this work is being done on a contract basis. Only one person from each household is employed at any one time, so as to spread the economic benefits as widely as possible. Once skilled, they can sell their services as individual entrepreneurs on the open market.

Protecting the most vulnerable from fire

Part of the Campaign’s mission is to empower disadvantaged people to protect their families and communities. Residents of informal settlements may not be affected by a mountain blaze, but they are always at risk from fire. Their shacks are often built of highly combustible materials and are usually clustered close together. When fire strikes one of these densely populated communities, it’s often impossible to contain the resulting inferno and hundreds can lose their homes.
The campaign’s target area includes five disadvantaged, fire-prone communities: Imizamo Yethu, Hout Bay fishing village, Ocean View, Masiphumelele, and Red Hill. Two vulnerable satellite areas on the Cape Flats, Joe Slovo and Silver City, will also receive help. Last year, 30 per cent of reported fire incidents in informal settlements in the Cape Town municipal area occurred in Joe Slovo – and 60 per cent of all dwellings destroyed were there. Working in partnership with Disaster Management and community volunteers, the campaign has handed out 4800 buckets, whistles and informative posters in Joe Slovo. Demonstrations were given of how effectively a swift response to an alarm whistle could control a fire, using buckets of sand and water.
In each of these vulnerable areas, training in firefighting techniques, interventions to provide fire hydrants and hardened tracks that perform as access and firebreaks is underway or being investigated.  Youth groups have been established to act as information officers. Fire and access breaks between homes is still needed in some areas – a step that calls for sensitive negotiation as, inevitably, some homes will have to be relocated to create the necessary space.

Promoting co-operation between communities

Affluent people usually have fire insurance and the means to either fight a blaze or flee by vehicle. So, in their areas, the campaign will encourage landowners to manage their properties responsibly, to join forces to reduce the risk of fire and flooding, and to contribute financially to projects in the public interest. Informal settlement dwellers, on the other hand, generally have few choices, no insurance and very little control over their environment. But with assistance from the campaign, they have the potential to become better organised, more protected from fire, and better able to respond to neighbouring communities that might be in trouble. As the previous Cape Town mayor Nomaindia Mfeketo pointed out, the Peninsula’s mountains belong to everyone and not just to those who live on the slopes.

Working with institutions

Fire management plans

An integrated fire management plan is vital if the firefighting activities of the various authorities are to be best co-ordinated and streamlined. The Veld and Forest Fires Act (1998) makes provision for Fire Protection Associations (FPAs), and the Ukuvuka: Operation Firestop Campaign is funding the appointment of a facilitator to establish an FPA in the Peninsula. It’s primary tasks will be to help maintain firebreaks and to supervise volunteer firefighting groups and a rapid response system. While the FPA directs the practical operations, the campaign’s input will be in the form of education, firefighting training, disaster planning and the provision of equipment.

Living on the edge

People who choose to live on the mountain slopes, enjoying the beauty and advantages of the adjoining natural environment, must accept a degree of vulnerability to fire. Now, they must also accept responsibility for protecting their immediate surroundings. There is a need for firebreaks, erosion control and fireproofing of properties along the urban fringe. There are established hack groups and nature clubs, and the campaign is supporting their efforts with planning, mapping, training, equipment and plants. As public awareness grows, it is hoped that landowners, as well as clearing alien plants and replacing them with indigenous substitutes (many of which have fire-repellent properties), will join these groups. For ordinary people to buy into Ukuvuka: Operation Firestop, they must care; in order to care, they must know what they stand to lose.


To help the Ukuvuka: Operation Firestop achieve its objectives, there must be awareness, environmental education, community enthusiasm and goodwill, pressure from insurance companies and banks, and (where necessary) legal enforcement by authorities. Campaign activities are already being widely publicised in the media. Schoolchildren will soon be exposed to an educational programme that will increase their knowledge about invasive alien plants and their link to fire and its consequences. Already, campaign workers and partners sport eye-catching T-shirts, and publicity initiatives include banners, bumper stickers and advertisements to inform the public of the Ukuvuka: Operation Firestop drive.
The campaign is a huge undertaking, but fortunately it already has the enthusiastic support of various authorities, generous funding from the private sector, and a high level of co-operation and commitment from landowners. But it’s also a campaign that aims to facilitate a fundamental shift in the mindset of Capetonians; a shift that will ultimately be felt throughout South Africa as the successes of this ambitious project are duplicated elsewhere in the country.
Lessons have been learned, and although Ukuvuka: Operation Firestop Campaign was born out of devastation and despair, its legacy will be immensely rich: rehabilitated and protected natural assets, and safer, more empowered communities.

IFFN / GFMC contribution submitted by:

Teri Kruger
Communications Manager
Santam / Cape Argus Ukuvuka: Operation Firestop
Goldfields Education Centre
Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens
Cape Town, 7700

Fax:            +27 21 762-8337
Tel:            +27 21 762-7474


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