Shack fire victims left out in the cold

After a fire swept through a section of Masiphumelele township near Cape Town, razing homes and leaving residents without food or shelter, Sassa failed to respond despite being mandated to do so.

Nkululeko Siphala is trying to sleep. He is dressed warmly against the lashing wind and rain outside, but the cold still chills him. He had hoped that the temporary roof above his head would protect him, but it hasn’t worked. 

The ground where he lies is muddy. The sheet of zinc that is meant to protect him from the rain is the remaining wall from his collapsed house. Twenty four hours earlier, his shack had been engulfed in flames. The fire spread from house to house in Section E of Masiphumelele township, just outside of Cape Town, until 246 homes were razed to the ground. Siphala is worried that his shack materials will be stolen and so he has slept outside. 

“I have three children. The only thing I could get out from the shack was clothes. I haven’t even been paid my income yet,” he says. 

2 August 2019: Nkululeko Siphala on the spot where his shack used to stand. He slept on site under a sheet of zinc in the rain to prevent his shack materials from being stolen.

In the aftermath of the fire, 1 280 people had lost everything. The blaze spread at midnight on Sunday 28 July and firefighters fought for close on 12 hours to try and stop it. In the end, a burnt hollow in the middle of Masiphumelele, almost the size of a football pitch, demarcates the land where people now have to rebuild. 

In the 24 hours after the fire had struck, government officials were largely absent. The South African Social Security Agency (Sassa) had not provided the victims with mattresses, blankets or food – a response that is meant to be standard – and the Western Cape Department of Human Settlements had not distributed fire kits to rebuild houses. Many spent the last few rands they had at the end of July paying R50 for wooden poles to erect their homes again. 

2 August 2019: Residents rebuilding their shacks in the winter rain.

A failure of government

The 1 280 residents had seven loaves of bread to share on the following Tuesday morning. This was all the Methodist Church in Masiphumelele could gather through community donations. 

Deputy Minister of Human Settlements Pam Tshwete arrived in the area on Tuesday. Sitting inside the church, she was told by community leaders that Sassa had not provided any food. On the table beside the delegates, the small pile of loaves shocked Tshwete. 

The deputy minister expressed shock at the number of loaves.

Sassa had not responded to questions about the delay at the time of publishing. 

2 August 2019: Sindiswa Tyika has lost her home to fire four times.

The church, along with a nearby community hall, were meant to temporarily house displaced residents. But without blankets and food, most people had opted to stay with family or brave the weather, like Siphala, to protect the remains of their shacks. Driven by desperation after the fire, some residents take their neighbour’s supplies to build their own homes. 

The deputy minister said that bad weather was to blame for the delay in issuing fire kits. The kits include a door, hinges, a window, nails and poles, and sheets of corrugated iron. Tshwete said the supplies had not been brought because of windy conditions. 

In the meantime, residents had been homeless for close to two days. Many have since been able to rebuild their homes and fire kits have been distributed. But some have had to use their own money to get their homes back.

2 August 2019: Ethiopian brothers Mohamedin Abduselam (left) and Arif Usmail run a spaza shop in the township. They gave 260 loaves of bread, polony and fruit to the fire victims when Sassa failed to provide food and blankets as mandated.

Relying on kindness

Arif Usmail has not seen his family in seven years. The Ethiopian, who owns a spaza shop one road away from where the fire spread, is from the Oromo community in his home country. The ethnic group had been violently persecuted in Ethiopia, forcing Usmail and his younger brother, Mohamedin Abduselam, to flee. 

The brothers can no longer return to Ethiopia because they do not have the documentation to cross the border legally. Unable to see their family back home, they have found their own sense of home in Section E. 

Usmail is frustrated. His shop has been robbed four times this year and he is wary of xenophobia. But he regards his neighbours, who enter his shop every day, with affection.

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On the Monday morning after the fire, the brothers opened their large spaza shop. They had heard the news and saw that no food had been provided. Working with residents like Siphala, they began to make a plan. 

In total, they gave 260 loaves of bread to the fire victims. They also donated polony, cooldrinks, oranges and bananas. 

“The people’s houses burn, so I try to help them because we are staying here for a long time,” Usmail says. “I feel for those people. They are like family. When they get hurt, we get hurt.”

As the bread and polony was delivered to the shack settlement, people formed queues for what may have been their only meal for the day. 

By Tuesday, Sassa had still not made any food available. In the absence of government assistance, non-governmental humanitarian group Gift of the Givers stepped in. From their big truck, two men struggled to unload the heavy pots of akhni (rice with curried meat and potatoes) into the Methodist Church. They promised that the food was enough to feed the 1 280 fire victims. Tshwete, unsure when Sassa would be available, left it in the hands of the NGO to provide mattresses and blankets as well. 

2 August 2019: Humanitarian group Gift of the Givers stepped up when Sassa did not, delivering food and water for the fire victims to the Methodist Church in Masiphumelele.

Finding a solution

The Social Justice Coalition (SJC), a grassroots activist organisation based in Khayelitsha, has been at the forefront of campaigns to bring safety and dignity to people living in shack settlements. Axolile Notywala, the SJC general secretary, has observed the aftermath of many shack fires in Khayelitsha, where he lives. Notywala says that one of the reasons shack fires remain prevalent is because of a lack of government will responsibly to develop shack settlements. 

“We know that in Cape Town there isn’t an overall plan and strategy to be able to develop informal settlements. Developments are happening on an ad hoc basis because the City doesn’t have a plan,” he said. 

The City of Cape Town’s development of informal settlement is regulated by a policy called the Upgrading of Informal Settlements Programme (UISP). According to the policy, upgrades should take place in four phases with a goal to provide basic services to such settlements. The programme is meant to assist in protecting communities from disasters, such as fires, by providing electricity to reduce the need for candles and paraffin. 

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While the UISP states that every municipality must consult with residents before upgrades are made, Notywala says that community participation is often marginalised. He points to the story of Imizamo Yethu in Hout Bay. 

In Imizamo Yethu, residents are still living in dire conditions after a fire in 2017 swept through around 3 500 homes. The City proposed to reblock the area, which would mean demolishing and rebuilding shacks in organised blocks so emergency services can access residents. 

Some residents in Imizamo Yethu, however, refused the reblocking because it required them to downsize their already cramped homes and move into temporary relocation areas until the project was completed. They feared that the temporary areas would become permanent and their homes would never be built. A court battle ensued where the City attempted to evict residents to continue the reblock, and many families are still suffering without homes after no resolution has been reached. 

“You need community participation if you want a solution,” Notywala said.

2 August 2019: A private business supplied wooden poles to the fire victims for R50 each to rebuild their homes after the government failed to assist them.

Rebuilding homes

Siphala spends most of Tuesday rebuilding his home. It’s not the first time his shack has burned down, but he has nowhere else to live. 

“Each and every time we stay here, we are just scared because we don’t know what is going to happen,” he says. 

His neighbour, Christopher Ngonco, is sitting in front of a fire. He holds a sheet of corrugated iron over himself and his son to keep them as dry as possible. Ngonco slept outside, too. Next to him, a lost dog is looking for the Ngonco family door where it used to sleep every day. The family has not yet been able to rebuild their home. 

Across the breadth of the charred land, Portia Gqozo is missing a day of work. She is a domestic worker, but has had to ask her employers for two days of leave so she can help her husband, a South African National Parks ranger, make a new home. Her husband has paid R50 for each of the wooden poles he is erecting because the family can no longer wait for the human settlements department to provide materials. 

Yet as each of these families rebuild, they live in fear of the next fire. 

2 August 2019: Christopher Ngonco (left) with his son, Siyakudumise, trying to stay warm and dry as they wait for supplies to rebuild their shack.
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