While South Africans were sleeping off whatever New Year celebrations they could manage, the residents of Taiwan shack settlement in Site C, Khayelitsha, were extinguishing a fire that gutted more than 140 shacks, leaving about 500 people homeless.
According to the residents, the fire started at about 9am on 1 January 2021 from a suspected informal electricity connection.
The City of Cape Town asked a nearby church to provide refuge but residents have chosen to sleep in the open among the remains of their shacks to safeguard their materials. Some residents are rebuilding using the burnt corrugated iron they have managed to salvage.
The residents are now dependent on Gift of the Givers and donations from surrounding residents for food and clothes.
The Housing Assembly, an organisation advocating for the eradication of shacks and the construction of decent housing for all, said what made the situation intolerable was that the fire was finally extinguished by firefighters from neighbouring townships when a fire station was situated within 500m of the blaze.
The organisation’s coordinator, Ndibulele Wababa, said those working at the local fire station told them there were only two firefighters on shift that day. “We begged them for help but they said they could not leave the station unattended. We had to call fire extinguishers from Makhaya and Mfuleni. But the time they arrived, the fire had already spread,” he said.
A strong wind on the day fanned the blaze.
Residents have been dealt a double blow as the fire happened during the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. “Cases are increasing as the chances of complying with regulations have depleted,” said Wababa.
Wababa added they were talking to the Department of Home Affairs and the South African Social Security Agency (Sassa) to speed up issuing lost identity documents and certificates for grant recipients.
To fast track aid to the residents of the Taiwan settlement, community leaders held discussions on 4 January with Lindiwe Sisulu, minister of the Department of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation; Tertius Simmers, Western Cape human settlements member of the executive council; and Malusi Booi, City of Cape Town’s member of the mayoral committee for human settlements. But the City told them it had no budget available for reconstruction.
Community leader Khaya Kama was shocked. “This is hard to believe. It does not make any sense at all. The City knows that there are lots of shacks in Cape Town that are usually on fire during summer. A caring government should always have budget set aside for such incidents. They have not provided material. The people are using burnt material to rebuild their homes,” he said.
Muneera Allie, provincial human settlements department spokesperson, said Sassa had been provided with a list of the affected Taiwan community members to help with relief.
“Relief to the area is a challenge due to the density of the settlement,” she added. Donations were being distributed from a local hall.
Through a joint statement, Sisulu said: “The basic principle of building allows for a fire break. However, this is not the case in Taiwan where there are no spaces between structures. The disaster that occurred there was clearly bound to happen.”
Forced to sleep in the open
Masibulele Mini, 60, a resident affected by the fire in Taiwan, said he had not recovered from the stress. “I have been sleeping in an open shack with no roof that resembles a kraal. I am doing that because I have no choice. If I don’t sleep here I will lose my material. Yes, it is burnt but I go through it and see what can be reusable.”
Sheila Mashumpela, 65, said she had been forced to share a bed with her daughter Zukiswa Majwe, 35, whose two-bedroom shack was also lost in the fire. Two beds and Majwe’s two children’s everyday and church clothes went up in flames.
“We stay because we have no choice,” Mashumpela said. “We want RDP houses.”
Nomvuzo Mabele, 46, said the incident strained her family of five. “We did not budget for this. We have just come from December where we have spent a lot for Christmas. Now we have to dig deep in our pockets.”
Relief for Masiphumelele residents
The Taiwan fire follows one in Masiphumelele on 17 December 2020, which razed 1 000 structures. The area was declared a disaster, which enabled authorities to allocate resources for the immediate relief of more than 6 000 residents affected by the fire.
Steve Motale, the human settlements department spokesperson, confirmed that an estimated R32 million had been made available to provide temporary structures, and water and sanitation facilities to affected residents of Masiphumelele.
“Some residents will be accommodated on a nearby sports field, while others will be assisted on part of the affected fire site that has been cleared. Erection of the temporary structures will commence immediately,” he said.
Allie said more than 1 100 food parcels, mattresses and blankets had been distributed to the affected residents in Masiphumelele.
“The food parcels, consisting of non-perishable items, are to feed a family of four for two weeks. This is in addition to the generous donations received from the public and organisations distributing relief,” said Motale.
Simmers said his department reprioritised its human settlements development grant funding for the immediate relief efforts, which includes clearing and securing the site, and the provision of temporary services and structures.
“We will continue to work very closely with all parties to ensure the smooth roll-out of interim relief. The department has been working very closely with the national department, the City and the [Housing Development Agency] to ensure that all resources are in place so that relief flows to the affected communities as soon as possible,” he said.
In a statement released on 5 January following the community meeting, Sisulu said that long-term plans were being discussed to find a permanent solution to shack fires in the area. “These plans will include the use of structures built with alternative building technology in future developments to provide a more permanent solution to affected communities,” she said.