Johannesburg is a divided city where propertied middle‐class residents and the urban poor live in existentially separate worlds. If the steady accretion of luxury entertainment sites, enclosed shopping malls and gated residential communities in the northern suburbs has come to symbolize the entry of middle‐class urbanites into the culture of aspirant ‘world class’ cities, then the proliferation of overcrowded, resource‐starved informal settlements on the periurban fringe represents the dystopian features of distressed urbanism. The risk‐prone environments of informal squatter settlements magnify the impact of catastrophic events like fires and floods, and the intersection of disaster‐vulnerable settlement patterns with relaxed planning regulations and building standards, lack of preparation for unsuspected calamities, and inadequate crisis management creates entirely new artificial hazards. These unnatural disasters cannot simply be attributed to ‘bad luck’ or nature’s destructive force. Disaster‐vulnerability and exposure to risk are unevenly distributed across the metropolis. By focusing attention on the catastrophic fires that regularly destroy shanty settlements in places like Alexandra township at the northeast corner of Johannesburg, it is possible to reveal a largely hidden structure of marginality and social insecurity that is a permanent condition of everyday life for the urban poor.