On the windy Tuesday afternoon of 5 March, the cramped shack settlement of Sjwetla in Alexandra, Johannesburg was hit by a raging fire that caused an electricity pylon cable to snap and fall on a brick house.
Thick dark grey plumes of smoke hovered over the riverside community, blending in with heavy grey clouds threatening rain.
On the ground, people scurried through the smoke with their worldly possessions on their heads and children on their backs, desperately trying to move what they could.
They hoisted fridges, TVs and microwaves, moving them away from the inferno, while some bound up the few clothes they could salvage, asking for shelter from those unaffected by the fire.
Traumatised children lay on charred mattress spring coils that used to be covered by fabric.
Caroline Khumalo, 47, says in her time living in Alexandra, this has never happened before. Although she was home when the fire started, she did not manage to save any of her or her husband’s possessions because she came to the rescue of a neighbour’s infant who was left in a shack during the blaze.
Khumalo was woken up by the smell of smoke and screams.
“There is a woman with two kids – one is older and the other is an infant. Her shack was already on fire, so I fought to get in because she had taken the older one and left the younger one in the shack, and she was crying saying she had left one in there,” she says.
Khumalo says when the mother tried to stop her from going back, she told her “No, it’s better I die and the young child lives”. She grabbed the child and returned her to the mother “The mother could not even do anything at that stage, by the time I came back the fire had given itself more strength through the wind”, she says, adding that she could not save her own shack.
She works as a temporary security guard, earning R1 800 a month. Her husband, John Ngobeni, is 67 and self-employed.
Standing in the sun and picking up a few items of burned clothing, Ngobeni says, “My fridge exploded there … these were clothes we bought in December, we had only worn them once. My suit too! My suit … We had just bought a new wardrobe we had saved for,” he says, crestfallen.
He lost groceries as well, including wors, chicken and beef. A few minutes later, a man walks by, telling his hungry dog to devour the remains of the burned wors that survived the fridge explosion.
His wife is concerned about her ID and school books, saying, “There were school books here, they are not here, they burned and they are books we bought so I don’t have money to go buy more.”
Ngobeni says he had taken a loan from mashonisa to buy the stand for R5 500 because he could not live with his parents, as he had been doing, after he started his own family.
He says getting new bank cards is going to be difficult as he needs money for a new card. But he admits that other residents have bigger problems, such as the woman who came back from work to find her shack reduced to burnt rubble. “She cried because she had lost R25 000 after saving it from January, she had no bank account”.
“There are people who are sick here, if you are sick you need an ID [for medication at the clinic] …This is going to be a problem,” he says.
Arthur Mathossi, a 34-year-old contract worker, says he was busy at a piece job when he got a call that his whole shack had been destroyed in the blaze.
He says although they knew the dangers of living under a powerline, he and his wife were trying to escape the trap of rent when they moved to the area.
“I have to start again, I have nothing. I am only left like this, with the clothes I have on my back,” he says.
He had been living there with his wife since last year, paying R700 for a shack rental, and another R200 for an informal electricity connection. He says rent for a brick house goes for R1 200, which he does not have.
Mathossi has plans to move, saying he put his name on a housing list last year.
“The truth is essential, we lived here knowing that but because we are renters, we had to live here, we were running away from paying expensive rent,” he says.
On the night of the fire, he slept on the pavement outside a shelter. Women and children slept at a local creche while men slept at a shelter.
DA Ward 109 councillor, Werner Smit, told New Frame that the fire spread rapidly, bringing down a pylon with an electrical voltage of 88 000 KW that then threatened to topple the pylon next to it, which carried 275 000 KW.
There are taps in the area, but they do not produce water so community members had to try and put out the fire from water from informal water connections, delaying the process.
“When you have fires in informal settlements that’s built with zinc, wood, cardboard … it just goes up in flames …[with] a sprawling development like this, it’s impossible for a fire truck to get close to the fire because there is no infrastructure,” he says.
Smit said that the area is a servitude, and that there are both bylaws and national acts prohibiting people from being there. The infrastructure can only cater for a certain number of people, and if pressured, it will collapse, he warns, adding that the electrical grid in the shack settlement would not survive winter.
“There is a long history of trying to stop the land invasions … the open pieces of land is reserved for the land restitution of Alexandra that’s why they are not developed. The servitudes are for obvious reasons. Today illustrated why it’s so dangerous to encourage people to invade here,” he says.
Smit accused unnamed political parties of gerrymandering.
“If people continue encouraging people to put up shacks here, so that they can build their personal political empire on the backs of poor destitute people … it’s just unforgivable, its criminal,” he says.
Nana Radebe, spokesperson for the Johannesburg emergency management services (EMS) said although there were no fatalities reported, there were a few injuries, including a man who hurt his left hand while moving metal sheets, and a firefighter on whom tree bark fell during the fire.
Radebe said that a minimum of 330 shacks were damaged in the blaze. The cause, she says, is still to be determined.
“The report that we got was that a pylon had fell on a number of shacks and … that the electricity started the fire,” she says.
Residents reject the idea that the fire was started by the pylon, saying that the pylon fell over well after the fire had started.
“This fire started in a shack where someone left something unattended. [They] mustn’t blame electricity or that tower, it was a shack fire, that thing was burned by a fire,” says Ngobeni.
Adelina Ngobeni, 27, says she was given shelter by her friend, Lembras Mhlongo, who took pity on her after the fire. Mhlongo lives with her husband and six-month-old son, Vutlari Mathebula, and says she took her friend in because she had lost everything.
“They should give them accommodation, for now they are supporting them, giving them food but they must give them some sort of accommodation,” says Mhlongo.
Most of the nearby trees were chopped down the day after the blaze, including a huge eucalyptus tree that used to tower over the settlement. The flames had leapt so high that they had licked the green leaves of the tree and turned them black, and left the bark as a thick ashy pile blanketing the debris on the floor.
Another resident who does not want to be named says he does not have time to wait in one of the queues for food rations supplied by disaster management because he has to rebuild as soon as possible and head back home to apply for a new passport.
“Now I am forced to do something illegal and dangerous because I have no money and no passport,” he shrugs. He plans on crossing the border illegally to reunite with his wife and child.
Thelma Nyamazane, 22, says that although she appreciates what authorities are doing, they do not provide for children.
She is with a group of women who are picking up a neighbour’s old vegetable stock including burned and rotten butternut, cabbage and onions clinging to and scattered over burnt rubble.
She and her friends continue to search for a few vegetables that can still be cooked, peeling them and cooking them on a makeshift fire made in a ditch.
“Children cannot eat bread and beans, they must eat cabbage and pap … what can we say? It would be better if they were also providing for our children,” she shouts over the sound of a chainsaw cutting down another tree.
“Even if I wanted to fix my situation, the money is not there,” says Nyamazane, adding that they do not know where to sleep that night.
Peter Maluleke, 33, says he has been living in the area for seven years. His shack was right under the leaning pylon. Now, all that remains are stacks of burned corrugated iron and hanging electricity cables.
“This one we can sell it, we don’t have another option, because it’s burnt,” he says, pointing at old material he will sell for money to rebuild.
He was lucky not to be renting, having managed to get a good maintenance job at a big company by using his electrical engineering certificate. But he is devastated and has lost almost all his possessions. He had managed to ask the neighbour who called him at work and told him about the fire to pack a bag of clothing for him.
“My certificate, IDs, passport, laptops, computer, any furniture …TV, fridge, everything was inside so …” says Maluleke, shrugging hopelessly.
“I am so sad because I must start afresh again. All my career is gone, I must pay a lot of money to get my certificates, and my ID. It’s like now, I never went to school … everything is gone,” he says.