Shack fire a chance for government to step up

Local government has assured the 164 shack dwellers who lost homes in a Pietermaritzburg fire that they don’t want them rebuilding on the floodplain and will ‘make a plan’. Time will tell.

Three-year-old Tlhonolofatso Kolumela sleeps peacefully under colourful blankets provided by the KwaZulu-Natal government at the AF Wood Hall, where families affected by a fire at the Jika Joe shack settlement in Pietermaritzburg are sheltering temporarily. 

Tlhonolofatso is oblivious to the reality of being homeless, and the fact that his mother, Kenelwe Motaung, 22, is looking to the state for the family’s next meal.

Motaung and 90 other families were left homeless when a 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. Msunduzi Fire and Emergency Services managed to save some of the dwellings.

“I was in my shack giving Tlhonolofatso a bath when I heard a woman saying we should leave the shack because there was a fire,” said Motaung, who has been living in the shack settlement for three years.

Related article:

Confused, Motaung picked up her son, who has epilepsy, and ran outside. Remembering that there were crucial documents in the shack, she returned. “I was able to get his clinic card, but his medication got burnt. I thought about the clinic card because I was worried that he might need to go and see the doctor. We lost everything else.”

Motaung, who depends on Tlhonolofatso’s father financially, said it was going to be a dark Christmas for her family. “I don’t work because I look after the baby. We don’t know what is going to happen. We will just keep waiting.”

Safety officer

Local security guard Khehla Dladla, 37, who is tasked with managing safety at the settlement, said he heard people screaming his name and rushed to where the fire had started.

9 December 2019: Khehla Dladla, who has been tasked with managing safety in the settlement, managed to rescue a wheelchair user but could not save his shack from the flames.
9 December 2019: Khehla Dladla, who has been tasked with managing safety in the settlement, managed to rescue a wheelchair user but could not save his shack from the flames.

“I heard someone crying next to the shack that was burning and then I broke down the door. I saw a man who was using a wheelchair that had been left alone in the shack.”

Dladla said the fire spread quickly into the man’s shack and he started burning. “His feet were on fire. We pulled him out and started to take his socks off and the pants he was wearing. We then rushed to get everyone else out of the shacks.”

‘Too much’

Sonto Goge, 35, who has been living in the Jika Joe settlement for three years, said she was taking a bath in her shack on that Saturday night when she saw smoke billowing underneath her door, accompanied by screams for help.

“They said I should get out because there was a fire. The fire spread very quickly and we couldn’t save our belongings, and we just ran because the fire was too much.”

Goge is one of many who lost everything in the fire. “I only have clothes left. I lost all of my shoes, money. I don’t have an identity document. The mayor is coming to assist us with that today.”

9 December 2019: Many Jika Joe residents were left with only the clothes they were wearing when the fire destroyed the homes of 164 people.
9 December 2019: Many Jika Joe residents were left with only the clothes they were wearing when the fire destroyed the homes of 164 people.

With Christmas looming, Goge says she doesn’t know what she is going to do.

Unemployed mother of two S’thabile Ngubane, 24, said she feared for her life and that of her sons one-year-old Qiniso and three-year-old Mpendulo.

She said crime was rife in the settlement and that residents lived in a place that “is not conducive for human beings.’’

Documents lost

At the AF Wood Hall about 1km from Jika Joe, Luthando Bhengu said residents had tried to put out the fire, but he lost everything. “The clothes I am wearing are the only things I have left.”

Bhengu arrived at the hall in the early hours of Sunday morning. “They gave us clothes while we try and put our lives back together again,” he said. “I don’t have shoes, I don’t have anything. I can’t even go and look for a job because I lost my identity document.”

Sex worker Phindile Hadebe, 32, who grew up in the shack settlement, told the packed hall that this wasn’t the first time it had caught fire.

“This has been happening for years, how much money has the government wasted helping us rebuild? They should rather move us and build us better houses.”

Hadebe admitted to the government officials at the hall that because of unemployment, she had been forced into sex work. “I sell my body for a living and when I am not doing that, I go and work as a domestic worker. My family believes that I am working, but I have not taken anything home because everything caught fire. My ARVs [antiretrovirals] also got burnt.”

Life at Jika Joe is tough said Hadebe, adding that “everyone is looking for their next meal … We wake up and sell our bodies because we don’t have jobs. With Christmas coming, we don’t know what we are going to take home to our children. They don’t even know whether we are alive or not.”

9 December 2019: Philisiwe Zulu managed to escape the fire that destroyed 97 shacks.
9 December 2019: Philisiwe Zulu managed to escape the fire that destroyed 97 shacks.

Government assurances

Msunduzi mayor Mzimkhulu Thebolla assured the 164 affected people that they would not return to the conditions under which they were living before the fire occurred.

“We promised that you would be sheltered here for three days while we make a plan. We all agree that that place where you were living in was on a floodplain and we don’t want you to go back there.”

Thebolla said the municipality’s responsibility was to provide dignified housing for the poor.

9 December 2019: Jika Joe residents talking to government officials in the wake of the fire.
9 December 2019: Jika Joe residents talking to government officials in the wake of the fire.

Acting member of the executive council for human settlements Peggy Nkonyeni said that while she was saddened about the incident, fortunately there was no loss of life.

Nkonyeni pleaded with the community not to return to Jika Joe. “That area is not conducive for human habitation. The community has been warned timeously that that place lies on a floodplain. Today it is the fire. Who knows, maybe there are huge flash floods that will come and sweep your loved ones and your homes away. We don’t want to hear that people have drowned in the Msunduzi River.”

Nkonyeni said the department would love to give the affected families building materials, but could not do so if suitable land had not been identified. “We cannot give you building material for you to go and build back where you came from. We cannot allow that.” 

‘A question of land’

Abahlali baseMjondolo president S’bu Zikode said the situation at the Jika Joe settlement was painful. “The shack dwellers living there are, however, fortunate that they live in the city centre, they are well located. But what is unfair is that they live in such dire straits. It is a slap in their faces that there are developments all around them, but they are not for them if they are rental schemes.”

Zikode said the problem was bigger than providing adequate housing.

Related article:

“The livelihood strategy is a difficult one to address because people will do anything to survive… I think they should be given building material because they need to live now and beyond Christmas, so that they can have shelter while the government thinks about a permanent solution.”

He said it was clear that the challenge for the poor was not just about housing. “It is a question of land. If they have land, that will address the survival strategy as well. Unemployment continues to be a problem and hits hard on the poorest of the poor.”

Zikode called on the government to come up with a multipronged approach in dealing with unemployment, poverty and inequality.

If you want to republish this article please read our guidelines.