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.
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.