Shack life means mud, rats, men with guns, and fires – relentless fires. Fires rush through shack settlements year after year, often taking the lives of children and other vulnerable people. Those who manage to survive are often only able to grab the bare essentials as they flee their homes: social security and ID cards, school and work uniforms, and precious photographs. After shacks are rebuilt, children still wake up in the middle of the night, screaming, the terror of the fires racing through their dreams.
The fire that recently devastated the Blowy shack settlement in Khayelitsha, Cape Town, destroying a number of homes and taking one life, left the usual devastation in its wake. Noluthando, 41, who lost her home in the blaze, told New Frame that shack life means “ulindelwe kukufa nanini na” (you’re waiting for death to come at any time).
Noluthando is a mother of two girls, one 15 and the other 3. She’s been staying in a two-room shack in Blowy since 2008. She was woken at 3am on the night of the fire to shouts of “kuyatsha! (there is fire!)” from her neighbours.
She rushed out and, seeing that the fire was not close to her shack, left her children to go and help umkhaya (a person from her village) to take her furniture out of her shack. But the winds were strong that night and the smoke quickly enveloped the entire settlement. Seeing that the fire was racing to her home, she ran back to save her children.
“When I arrived, it was not easy to take out anything, so I just took the children out for safety and placed them in the street outside the shacks.” The thick smoke made it difficult for her to see anything. “I came back to check what I could take out but it was not possible,” she says, clapping her hands in resignation.
That night, Noluthando lost all her belongings, including one of her children’s school uniform, clothing, her ID, birth certificates, and clinic cards for her children, and her own clinic card, which she uses for HIV treatment. Six days after the fire, she still had no access to her HIV treatment.
She begins to cry as she speaks about not having taken her medication for so long and the feeling that her health was now at risk. Using a towel wrapped around her shoulders to dry her eyes, she says: “Not taking treatment one day is very dangerous. Now I am thinking I am at risk because I can die at any time and that scares me.”
She explains that leaving her plot is difficult as she must guard it against people who might use the fire as an opportunity to appropriate it. So going to the clinic to report her stolen card and renew it is not a simple matter. She says she also has to wait at her plot for her name to be called to collect building material.
An umkhaya living in the nearby brick houses offered her a place in his house while she secured her site and rebuilt her shack. Another man, who also lost his shack, also took refuge there along with the umkhaya’s girlfriend and three children. He stored his building material on the floor, where some of the umkhaya’s guests also have to sleep at night.
In the days after the fire, their only access to food was via donations, often a cup of soup in a paper cup and three slices of bread. People depended on word of mouth to find out about the food as it didn’t arrive at regular times.
Noluthando is deeply pained by her children’s trauma. “They are asking me questions I do not know how to answer,” she says.
She’s worried about how she would replace her furniture and confides that she had grown very fond of her TV. Watching it, she says, allowed her to escape from the stresses of shack life.
She works as a security guard. When she works the night shift, she leaves her children at home. This time, at least, they all came through the fire alive.
Tembakazi Gqiba, 30, lived next to the shack in which the fire started. Sitting in front of a pile of ash and rubble that used to be her home, she points and says: “Iqala pha indlu yam izokujikela (my house starts there and then turns).” It’s 5pm and neither she nor her children have eaten anything yet. She hadn’t been able to go to work.
She has three children, a 15-year-old boy and two girls, one 12 and the other 7. The night the fire broke out, she came home late from her job at a restaurant and fell into a deep sleep. Her sister Tembela, 29, slept over that night in the one-room shack; it was she who first heard the shouts of “kuyatsha!” from a neighbour.
Tembakazi was woken by Tembela, who then ran to wake other neighbours. Tembakazi grabbed her phone and some clothes from the washing basket, got dressed and, leaving her two younger children in the shack, rushed to wake her son, who had been sleeping at her brother’s shack while her brother kept watch over her mum’s shack while she was away in Marikana, a land occupation, in Philippi East, about 15km away.
By then, the fire was gathering serious heat and power, it’s oily, acrid smoke seeping into the entire area.
Tembakazi fought her way through the smoke and rising panic to get her two younger children. When she got back, her shack was blanketed in smoke. She couldn’t see her children.
“My children were all over the place and I was trying to grab them, and they kept on slipping through my hands,” she says. She couldn’t see a safe way out but managed to pass through the flames. Her youngest child was trembling with fear and crying uncontrollably. Her other daughter escaped wearing nothing but a shirt.
She saved her children but lost everything else, most importantly her ID and social security cards, and other documents. “I don’t even know how I feel. At times I am lost. I sit and look at what I use to call home. I feel broken-hearted,” she says.
Tembakazi recalls how people tried to fight the fire, coming out with buckets to fill at taps that weren’t easily or immediately accessible. To get to the taps, she explains, you must pass through a gravel road, other shacks and a row of toilets.
The area where the toilets are is more like a dump site, with rubbish strewn in all directions. The toilets don’t work and only one tap isn’t broken. According to Blowy residents, their water supply is erratic, and there was no water when the fire broke out.
One resident, Mluleki Figlin, 39, says “the situation with the toilets is very bad and not safe for children”.
Without water, residents used sand to try dampen the raging flames. When the fire brigade arrived, firefighters struggled to get through the burning shacks. There are no streets in Blowy, let alone streets with hydrants, so when fire trucks ran out of water, they had to leave to refill.
New Frame met Anelisiwe Henge, 18, at an after-school learning programme for matric pupils at the offices of Equal Education. As we arrive, participants are engrossed a lively discussion, preparing for a maths literacy exam.
When Anelisiwe lost her home in the Blowy fire, she lost her place to study, along with all her notes and stationary. The fire was devastating, but now, thanks to Equal Education, she has a place to study again. She takes comfort in the solidarity among others in the same situation. “It’s better to be in the same space, as our situation is the same,” she says.
She breaks down when she speaks about the fire. “When I am with people, I am fine because I do not think about it. But once I am alone, that image [of the fire] comes back as I watch my home burning.”
After the fire, she went to stay at her aunt’s two-bedroom home, where two other families have also taken refuge. The men stay in one bedroom, the women in the other, and the children in the passage and the lounge, from which the couches are moved outside at night to make space for everyone.
Anelisiwe’s face lights up when she recalls what she misses most about her home. “It’s my bed. When I am lying there with the window open and the gentle wind coming in … even if I was hurt I am able to be relieved.”
*Not her real name