South Africa

GroundUp: Deadly Khayelitsha blaze leaves 1,000 homeless and destitute

A raging inferno killed one person, destroyed hundreds of shacks and displaced about 1,000 residents in SST Section, Khayelitsha on Saturday morning. By Vincent Lali and GroundUp Staff

First published by GroundUp

Mayoral Committee Member for Safety and Security JP Smith said one person had been confirmed dead in a fire that destroyed hundreds of shacks and displaced 1,000 residents in Khayelitsha on Saturday morning. Estimates of the number of people displaced have varied and at the time of writing it appears that about 1,000 people have been left homeless. There is no information yet on the person who died.

Residents we spoke to said the fire started at about 2:30am. As is often the case with shack fires, the cause is unclear.

At 1pm firefighters were still dousing small, stubborn fires in parts of the informal settlement, popularly known as Blowy.

High winds whipped up ash, which covered the faces of the people who had lost their life’s belongings and who were still trying to salvage building material.

[caption id="attachment_109457" align="alignnone" width="1280"] Nomveliso Gxiya wanders through the rubble of what used to be her home.[/caption]

Nomveliso Gxiya, 37, said she was asleep when smoke filled her shack and woke her up.

I rushed out of my shack, saw a huge blaze approaching my shack and pulled my children out before I called out to my neighbours,” she said.

Gxiya said she frantically moved out her wardrobe, fridge and bed, but her children’s clothes and another wardrobe burnt.

I decided to simply move my belongings out and made no effort to put out the fire because it was already big. Besides, the communal taps are located far from my shack,” she said.

Gxiya said the shack dwellers made no attempt to extinguish the fire as they scrambled to pull their possessions out of their burning shacks.

Wearing a T-shirt, a skirt and slippers, she said: “I have no clothes other than the ones I’m wearing.” She said the fire had left her and her children, aged nine and 19, without a place to sleep.

Phathiswa Pensele said the fire burnt her shack in which she stayed with her boyfriend and her two children, aged one and three.

When I woke up, the fire had already damaged nearby street lights, so I could not see through the black smoke. The only thing visible was a huge blaze coming my way.”

Pensele said: “I watched the fire as it destroyed other shacks and screamed aloud when it reached mine.”

She was lucky enough to manage to move out all her belongings, but her shack was destroyed.

Pensele said she saved money to buy building materials to erect her shack while working as a grape picker at a farm in De Doorns in 2004. “Now I have no money to buy more building material. I don’t know where I will sleep tonight,” said Pensele. She works as a rubbish collector in Blowy. She said her attempts to move her belongings had left her drained of energy.

Andisiwe Ngubo said she was woken up at about 3am on Saturday. “Residents who were drinking nearby shouted and told us to wake up as the fire was engulfing our shacks,” she said. “I stepped out of my shack wearing only pyjamas and saw the inferno approaching before pulling my children out of their shack and fleeing.”

The fire destroyed her children’s school uniforms, Sassa cards, ID documents, schoolbooks, bed, birth certificates and other possessions. “Now I have nothing to wear except these pyjamas as the fire destroyed all my belongings,” she said.

Ngubo said she has no job and lives on her children’s government grants. “I have no money to buy building materials to rebuild the shack. If the City doesn’t give me building materials, I will sleep outside,” she said.

Ngubo was hungrily eating bread as she spoke to GroundUp. “I’m famished, confused and shocked as I speak,” she said, trying to regain her energy.

[caption id="attachment_109458" align="alignnone" width="4288"] A scene that is far too common in South African informal settlements.[/caption]

Community leader Nobom Twayise said the fire would not have not caused so much devastation if the shacks had not been built so close to one another. “We now want the City to remove some residents and place them elsewhere so that there can be space between shacks,” she said.

If the shacks were not closely clustered, the firefighters would have easily entered Blowy to douse the blaze and it would not have destroyed so many shacks. Paramedics can’t enter Blowy; residents must carry a sick person on their shoulders to a nearby street where ambulances wait,” said Twayise.

Asked about the request for the removal of some shacks, Councillor Anda Ntsodo said:

No, they can’ be relocated elsewhere. They will be returned to where they stayed before the fire happened.”

He said the City had a plan to upgrade all informal settlements, but it would kick off with the oldest ones located Khayelitsha’s in Site B and Site C.

Ntsodo said Blowy does not feature in the City’s financial plans for any upgrade this year, but it would be included next year.

Western Cape MEC for Human Settlements Bonginkosi Madikizela visited the area.

We plead with the fire victims to allow the Disaster Risk Management Centre to clear up debris,” Madikizela said.

Madikizela said he was anxious that a similar fire might break out in the future and wanted to turn the informal settlement into a serviced site.

We need to deal with a resettlement plan and a long-term plan. My view is that we clear up the site and allow them to return and rebuild their shacks in such a way that basic services can be provided.”

When Madikizela mentioned a “long-term plan”, Thoba September cut him short, saying the plan never materialised in Hout Bay. He said the mayor had promised to build houses for the fire victims there, but this had not happened.

Some residents were not impressed with Madikizela’s intentions to help the fire victims.

You are a failure, Madikizela. Where is the land?” shouted local youth leader Mxolisi Godongwana.

Madikizela retorted: “Shut up!”

[caption id="attachment_109459" align="alignnone" width="4288"] MEC for Human Settlements Bonginkosi Madikizela visited the area shortly after the fire.[/caption]

Meanwhile on Sunday morning, authorities, including members of the Disaster Risk Management Centre, were counting and registering victims of the fire.

JP Smith wrote that the site was being cleared by the Solid Waste Department. Smith said that people will then be allowed to “resettle in an orderly manner”. He said the City wants to “keep access routes clear to allow for services to be reinstalled”.

Given past experience, where people begin rebuilding their shacks immediately after a fire, and that building firebreaks would require moving some people elsewhere, it is unclear how this plan can be carried out, at least in the short term.

Smith also said fire victims will be provided with 3,000 meals on Sunday, as well as kits to help them rebuild their shacks. The kits include sheets of corrugated metal and plastic, wooden posts, nails, a window, a door and a frame for the door.

Donations and relief materials can be dropped off at the Khayelitsha Fire Station. At the time of publication GroundUp is awaiting the banking details of a Mayoral Relief Fund where monetary donations can be sent. DM