Residents of Joe Slovo informal settlement were going through the debris of what was their homes looking for anything to salvage after a fire destroyed over 300 structures and leaving about 1,500 people homeless on Saturday evening. An entire 600 square metre section of the settlement alongside the N2 highway in Langa in Cape Town was destroyed when a fire broke out around 17h00 on Saturday afternoon according to some residents.
We met Siphendule Gcosha, a 34-year-old unemployed resident who has been living in the informal settlement for 13 years as he was sifting through what was left of his home looking for what he could salvage. He was away last night visiting friends in Philippi. One could see the springs of what used to be his bed, half burnt jeans and a red T-shirt, a TV stand, enamel dishes and cups. “I’m not sure if I want to dismantle the zincs because once you do that you have to straighten them and that usually destroys the material. The last time I had a job was in November last year; I really don’t know what I’m going to do,” he said.
30-year old mother of one, Gciniswa Mancoba told Elitsha that she could only manage to take out a few clothing items from her house before it was engulfed by the fire. “I moved here from Zone 23 a few months ago and now this. I am unemployed at the moment as I lost my job due to the lockdown. I could not apply for the Covid grant [social relief of distress grant] as I was still getting my UIF [Unemployment Insurance Fund] money. Now I depend solely on a child grant. The last R5 that I had I used to go buy vetkoeks for myself and my child,” said Mancoba.
The area has communal chemical toilets and taps that are situated on the edges of the settlement. As a woman, Mancoba said, they cannot go to the communal toilets at night as it is in unsafe. “We have to fetch water about 300 metres from here and store it in buckets,” she said.
Siphendule Gcosha was away when the fire broke out and destroyed all his belongings.
Yonela Qaba who works as a security guard said that she was at home when the fire started. “I was lying in bed as I was not feeling well. I could smell something like burning plastic and it was then that I heard people shouting that the area is on fire. I could only manage a few clothing items but important stuff like school uniforms and books of my child were destroyed,” said the 30-year-old mother of two.
As Elitsha was busy interviewing Qaba, three men carrying new corrugated sheets of metal came to clear the area where her house used to be and by the time of our leaving, the sides of the shack were already up. “I can only afford the structure and a bed, all the other stuff will take time for me to have,” explained Qaba.
Qaba’s shack was already up on Sunday afternoon
According to Zahid Badrooidien, the mayoral committee member for water and sanitation, who was doing an inspection in the area on Sunday morning, the firefighters had a hard time accessing the area as it is densely populated and they had to be escorted by the police to do their work. “The streets, the two entrances are narrow so the fire trucks could not access the area. Even when the firefighters were there, they had to be protected while doing their jobs as the fire engines were being turned off. Pipes were being cut away and that delayed our response to control the fire as they had to wait for the metro police and law enforcement,” said Badrooidien who is an acting mayor.
The City of Cape Town according to Badrooidien does not provide starter building material to shack-fire victims as it was agreed that it should be the responsibility of the South African Social Security Agency (SASSA). One of the long-term solutions that the city is proposing is the re-blocking of the area, which, he said, would be in consultation with all stakeholders. He added that they are looking to fix existing toilets and bring in more, and improve water provision to the area.
The Gift of the Givers were already on the ground to provide “urgent humanitarian assistance in the form of hot nutritious meals, water, blankets, baby care packs and mattresses. We will be here for the next three to five days. They have already lost their homes and the last thing they need not to worry about is humanitarian assistance,” said Ali Sablay from the organisation.