People living in the Joe Slovo informal settlement started to rebuild their lives on Sunday after a devastating fire ravaged the densely populated settlement, leaving about 12 000 homeless.
An infant died from smoke inhalation and seven people, including two children, were seriously injured as the flames destroyed thousands of homes on Saturday morning.
One of the residents claimed the fire was started by a man who had left a paraffin stove unattended as he took a nap.
Scorched: Residents of the Joe Slovo informal settlement in the Western Cape survey the remains of their homes after this weekend’s monster blaze. Photo: Rogan Ward, Cape Times
3 150 families had been affected by the fire Spokesperson for Cape Town Disaster Management Johan Minnie said 3 150 families had been affected by the fire.
“If you want to know how many individuals were left homeless you can multiply that figure by four,” said Minnie.
He said the fire had been under control by 9pm on Saturday as firefighters in 17 vehicles and aided by a helicopter battled the flames. This had been the first instance where a helicopter was deployed to fight a shack fire.
Amidst the mangled remains of corrugated iron that would be recycled for new homes, several cars and home appliances were scattered, with scrap metal vendors quickly clearing items that were unwanted.
Several paraffin stoves used for cooking and heating and thought to have played a significant role in the spread of the fire were also scattered around the charred remains of the settlement. ‘All our clothes got burnt in the fire’ Nomalibongwe Mkwhe is unemployed and lives alone with her two young children. Her story is not dissimilar to those of many victims of the blaze. She lost everything.
“All our clothes got burnt in the fire and I don’t have any family to call upon in Cape Town after I broke off the relationship with the father of my children,” she said.
Mkwhe survives on the child support grant she receives for her two children. With her eldest due to start school on Wednesday, the timing couldn’t have been worse.
Most families left homeless by the fire were housed and fed in several marquee tents set up at the nearby Isilimela High School, while others decided to move in with family and friends.
For married couple Duma Nyezi and Nobusi Ntloko the experience of sleeping “outside” as they termed their night in the marquee tent had not been pleasant.
It cost the government R700 000 to house the people in the tents.
“We’ve been victims of fires for each year that we’ve lived in the area since 2000,” said Nyezi, who added that he wants to move his family out of Joe Slovo but, because he’s unemployed, moving out would remain a dream.
Sandla Khaba, who has two children in school, said he didn’t know what he would be doing as the schools opened on Wednesday and his situation was no different to other families in the area.
“I don’t know what will happen to them because schools open this week and the only one working in the family is one of my older children who does the occasional ‘piece job’ and these come by maybe just twice a week if he’s lucky,” said Khaba.
The fire also burnt down several hostels previously used by migrant workers but which more recently housed many people who had lived in Langa most of their lives.
Phumza Manjezi has been living in the hostel since the age of nine and lost everything in the fire, which spread so fast that she had no time to move her furniture and valuables from the small room which was gutted along with several others.
“I was supposed to go to work tomorrow (today) but I called my boss and he said it would be okay if I stayed home, or what remains of it,” she said.
Some victims were angered by the slow response of government officials who hadn’t yet distributed building materials. Many were still waiting to be registered on lists compiled by emergency services staff.
Minnie admitted that there was a shortage of building material but said it would be provided as soon as it became available.
MEC for Social Services and Poverty Alleviation Marius Fransman spent the day in the area and held meetings with the local community. He said all government departments would be working on emergency support.
After the first meeting with community leaders, he said: “We are looking at alternative sites that would temporarily house people.”
Fransman said he would not want to see a repeat of the situation where people built shacks only for them to be burnt down.
From Monday, people would be assisted in replacing their identity documents and other documentation consumed by the fire.
A survey was being conducted to establish the number of schoolchildren and schools affected by the blaze.
As part of a medium-to-longer term intervention strategy, Fransman said Joe Slovo was part of the N2 housing upgrade, and would be developed so that people could be permanently accommodated in brick and mortar structures.
People who lost their homes would be discouraged from returning and re-erecting their shacks, he said.
He said authorities were looking at alternative land, with approximately 27 hectares needed to provide temporary accommodation.
Provincial, municipal and other stakeholders would meet to discuss alternative measures for relocation today, he added.
This article was originally published on page 1 of The Cape Times on January 17, 2005