Shack dwellers despair over latest fire in Jika Joe

Hundreds of residents are once again homeless after another fire swept through the Pietermaritzburg shack settlement, with the additional worry of contracting Covid-19 in temporary shelters.

Hundreds of families who lost their shack dwellings when a fire swept through the Jika Joe shack settlement in the central business district of Pietermaritzburg have started to rebuild their homes. 

The sound of hammers knocking in screws to hold together the metal sheets can be heard as you enter the shack settlement. Women and children gather around collecting whatever is left of their homes.

Recounting what happened on Wednesday 23 September, Nelisiwe Zondi*, who moved to the settlement in 1996, said she was on her way to buy bread when she saw smoke billowing from one of the shacks. Residents say the fire was caused by an informal electricity connection. 

”I thought maybe someone left the stove on or something like that, but the smoke kept getting bigger and bigger,” said Zondi, adding that the wind spread the fire to all the shacks in a matter of seconds. 

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“I would estimate that about 700 shacks were damaged, but we thank God that no one died during the fire. You see, this is not the first time that we have lost our homes to a fire. Some people forget to switch off their appliances and remember later, but by then it’s often too late.” 

Msunduzi municipality spokesperson Thobeka Mafumbatha said the Department of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation was helping the affected families by supplying building materials. “Some are being accommodated at a local municipal hall and being assisted with mattresses and food supplies. I believe that the process of rebuilding their homes has begun.” 

It was not clear how families were being helped with physical distancing as the Covid-19 pandemic continues.

‘Back to square one’

In December last year, about 90 families were left homeless when another fire swept through the shack settlement. It spread to the neighbouring shacks, leaving nothing in its wake. Many families were left with only the clothes they were wearing at the time. 

When Helele Thabethe, 34, speaks about the incident, he is filled with rage. “One thing I can tell you is that our municipality does not like us. They do not care about us and they do not want us here. When the incident happened, the mayor came with his bodyguards and took pictures, got into his BMW X5 and left.” 

Thabethe said he had just finished rebuilding his home after another recent fire. “In August, there was another fire and the municipality didn’t help us with anything. We decided to rebuild and there was another fire this week. I am trying to make a better life for myself and now I am back to square one.” 

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Thabethe says the ANC promised to build adequate housing for the residents but that the housing project opposite the shack settlement appears to have been earmarked for low-income workers who are able to afford rent. 

Shack dwellers’ movement Abahlali baseMjondolo leader S’bu Zikode agrees with Thabethe’s sentiments. Zikode said that every time there is a crisis, politicians renew their promises and that is why Abahlali occupies vacant land.

“The reality is that they do not care about people. Poor people do not count, they are not taken seriously. They [the government] were the ones who were preaching social distancing, but now they want to place people in a hall where they will be sitting on top of each other. They say what they say just to please the media,” he said. 

Let down by the ANC

Another resident, Max Chauke, 34, said the municipality erected tents as shelter for affected families after a previous fire. “They also brought us biryani. What are we supposed to do with biryani when you have lost a home with everything inside.” 

Lucky Khuzwayo, 43, moved to Jika Joe in 1994 to be closer to his job at Townhill Hospital. “I have lost everything. The clothes you see are all that I have to my name … What is painful is that we have small children. They need to stop giving us food to make us keep quiet when we have lost our homes.” 

Khuzwayo said it did not make sense for the municipality to place families in a hall because the country is in the middle of a pandemic. “If we are crammed in one place, there will be no social distancing. We are going to be exposed to sickly people and then we will get sick as well.” 

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Ephrahim Mbhele, 60, fears that the municipality will return after rebuilding to evict residents. “I have spent most of my life here and you can see I am old now. What upsets me is that the municipality said they will come and demolish our homes if we start rebuilding.”

Mbhele said he feels let down by the ruling party. “We are not sure what will happen when they come to bulldoze our homes. In any case, we are ready for them to call the police to shoot us with rubber bullets because they are very good at that.” 

Ward 33 councillor Suraya Reddy said the City has earmarked the land on which Jika Joe is built for phase two of the housing project opposite the shack settlement. “The city has refused to help them because they don’t want them there. We suspect that illegal electricity connections may have started the fire,” she said.

*Not their real names.

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