In Pictures | Firefighters now fight for their jobs

Firefighters risked their lives to put out the flames threatening Cape Town. But more than 500 of them might be fired for trying to negotiate better working hours.

Sunrise on the morning of 20 April was calm on Signal Hill. Joggers and cyclists were out getting their exercise for the day. Devil’s Peak and Table Mountain poked up through a sea of smoke, with a single plume rising from the mountain.

There was a sense of relief in the air. The disaster was finally over. 

The fire had been extinguished in most places other than Devil’s Peak. While the wind had flared up overnight, it was calm by the morning. In Vredehoek, all was now quiet except for the constant drone of helicopters arriving, one after the other, to drop water bombs on the hotspots the firefighters could not reach.

But relief was not felt by all. Firefighters affiliated with the South African Municipal Workers’ Union (Samwu) who fought the Cape Town fire were wracked with anxiety over the fate of their jobs. More than 500 of them are facing disciplinary hearings they say will end in dismissal.

In October 2019, 535 Samwu-affiliated firefighters elected to work eight-hour days for a week, demanding an end to 24-hour shifts. According to Archie Hearne, a Samwu organiser, 55 senior firefighters, including seven shop stewards, face charges of incitement and clocking out early, while the remaining 480 are charged with clocking out early. 

Samwu has called on the City of Cape Town to drop the charges against the firefighters and negotiate a new dispensation, but so far the City has refused.

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The fire, which began on 18 April and swept across the slopes of Table Mountain for three days, was responsible for the complete destruction of a number of buildings, including part of the restaurant at the Rhodes Memorial; the historic Mostert’s Mill; the Cadbol Building, which was used as student housing at the University of Cape Town (UCT); and the university’s Jagger Reading Room. The HM Pearson building on the Rondebosch campus was seriously damaged but to a lesser extent. 

The fire damaged the Smuts and Fuller residences at UCT, prompting the evacuation of students. Areas in Vredehoek, Walmer Estate and University Estate were also evacuated, but firefighters succeeded in keeping the flames at bay.

While the full extent of the damage to property, environment and lost archives is assessed, the fate of the 535 firefighters hangs in the balance.

18 April 2021: A firefighter uses a crane to spray the Jagger building from above. The building continued to burn through the night.
19 April 2021: The wind picked up overnight, spreading the fire to Devil’s Peak above Vredehoek. This photograph was taken from Signal Hill.
20 April 2021: Table Mountain National Park firefighters wait for water in Deer Park, above Vredehoek. While most of the fire was extinguished, they were working on putting out hotspots.
20 April 2021: Most of the fire had been extinguished by sunrise on the third day, but the lack of wind meant the city was covered in a smoky haze.
20 April 2021: A firefighter in Deer Park.
20 April 2021: As a helicopter flies by, two firefighters talk while waiting to be relieved at the end of their 24-hour shift.
18 April 2021: A man inspects a burnt tree in front of the Fuller Hall residence on the University of Cape Town’s Upper Campus. Students of the residence were evacuated.
20 April 2021: The interior of the Jagger Reading Room after the fire. ‘The vast majority of African Studies Published Print Collection (approximately 70 000 items) [and] the entire African Studies Film Collection on DVD (approximately 3 500)’ have been lost, according to University of Cape Town vice-chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng.
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