07 May 2021 | Story Keitumetse Maake and Nombulelo Shange

A wildfire hit Cape Town hard in April and no doubt, the financial, social, health and ecological impact of it will be felt for a long time to come.  The fire moved from the mountain and leapt close to the suburbs, destroying homes, colonial memorials, businesses, student residences and a library at the University of Cape Town.

One of the people arrested for the fire, is 35-year-old Frederick Mhangazo, who is said to be homeless. He was initially arrested on charges of arson. Mhangazo’s lawyer, Shaun Balram reported that the charge was later changed to contravening the National Environmental Management Act (Nema). But the question must be raised: was arson a fitting charge in the first place? Why did the state rush to try and charge him on such a serious charge, an offence which would have potentially carried a 15-year conviction? 

Arson is a common-law offence which is an aspect of the common-law crime of malicious damage to property. While various definitions have developed over time, the definition which most widely encompasses the full nature of the crime, as indicated in the approach followed in a recent Supreme Court of Appeal case, State v Dalindyebo, is by legal scholars, John Milton and Jonathan Burchell.  

They explain that arson is the act of unlawfully setting an immovable property or structure on fire with the intent to injure another or defraud another. The immovable property or structure may be owned by another or even belong to the accused himself. The injury caused to another may include injury to the interests of the community or even injury of insurable interests. 

In order to successfully prosecute the crime, the following elements must be proven;

(i) setting of the fire, meaning that a structure must burn with damage resulting from burning;

(ii)  the structure must be immovable property, including but not limited to land or a building;

(iii) the act must be unlawful, meaning that there is no justification or grounds excusing the act;

(iv) intention, the accused must have intended to set the structure on fire and intended to cause proprietary injury to the immovable property and / or damage the interests of another.

What about Mhangazo and people like him

Our case law has emphasised the importance of establishing the intentions of the accused, explaining that mere negligence does not suffice in proving liability for a crime of this nature. Dolus or intention is what separates the crime from others of the same species.

We place the blame on people like Mhangazo on the odd occasions that we also have to shoulder the burden of poverty because a fire started by a desperate man has destroyed our symbols of wealth. But what about Mhangazo and people like him? What about their loss of dignity that comes as a result of living in a society that normalises the violence of living in poverty while prioritising material wealth over human life? What has also mostly been missing in the outrage is how this fire has affected the poor in the city, once again showing the rot in our society, that we care more about destroyed colonial structures than we do about the most vulnerable people and their well-being.

While we tally the cost of the damage and mourn damaged colonial structures that should not have a place in post-apartheid South Africa, we are glossing over the bigger injustice ‑ poverty and homelessness in South Africa and the desperate and impossible decisions many South Africans must make to survive, have food and some level of warmth and safety. This fire is just one example of the impact poverty can have on the people living in it and the rest of society by extension. By charging Mhangazo, we are criminalising poverty. We are punishing those who commit certain acts out of desperation and economic need, rather than address poverty and ensuring more equitable distribution of resources and opportunities. Even the lesser Nema charge is still an injustice, especially if you view it against the contradiction of rich capitalist entities who contravene Nema every day with little or no consequences. EDS Systems business development head, Eckart Zollner, reported last year that: “South Africa’s emission levels are as high as those of the eight-times-larger UK economy.” Much of these emissions come from the mining industry threatening the environment and public health and further adding to poverty.

We criminalise Mhangazo’s actions, rather than deal with the circumstances

French classical Sociology theorist, Emile Durkheim tells us that crime in society is inevitable in reasonably small amounts. It usually speaks more to diversity and differences in socialisation. Subcultural groups do not always fit into the mainstream society and its laws and norms, so clashes exist in that regard and crimes are committed. But when crime rates are excessive, it leads to social decay. The decay reflects more on the society rather than the individuals committing the “crimes”. It shows that the norms and social constructs used to create laws are oppressive and overwhelmingly benefit the rich elite who are more likely to be protected by the legal structures, even when they break laws. We criminalise Mhangazo’s actions, rather than deal with the circumstances that might have led him to start the fire.

In this instance, it would have been very difficult to prove the malicious intentions of the accused given the social context. While many Cape Town residents have called for the context to be ignored, condemning the views of many public interests groups advocating for the protection of the homeless, it is important to note that the requirement of proving intention makes the context all the more relevant. It would have been difficult to argue that a homeless man, who is said to have sited the area where the fire allegedly emanated from as his place of dwelling, had intended to wilfully destroy the same property or had done so with the intention of damaging the interests of others. Nor could it be simply argued that the damage was reasonably foreseeable for someone who had often relied on small fires to keep warm. The social context cannot be ignored where the intention behind the act is such an important element of the crime.

Opinion article by Keitumetse Maake, an Admitted Attorney and a Legal and Compliance Officer in the financial services sector, and Nombulelo Shange, lecturer in the Department of Sociology, University of the Free State 


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