Walmer township residents struggle to rebuild after fire

Reliant on donations of building materials, food and paraffin as they rebuild shacks in the middle of winter, some residents are fearful they may have lost their jobs in addition to their homes.

Five weeks after 81 people lost their homes in this year’s worst shack settlement fire to date, on 10 June in Nelson Mandela Bay, the residents of Area Q in Walmer township are barely any closer to being able to return to their lives. 

The municipality has provided little in the way of building materials, temporary housing or shelter. Those affected have been living at the Apostolic Faith Mission church in partially rebuilt shacks with no furniture. They wait near the church each day for donated building material from other churches, non-profit organisations such as Walmer Angel Projects, local businesses and schools to arrive. 

Nkosivumile Ntukela, chairperson of the local area committee, stands opposite the church next to a pile of donated pallets, which the people rendered homeless by the fire are taking apart to use as planks to rebuild their homes. This has become the informal drop-off point for donated building material. 

Those residents with jobs have not been able to go to work in the weeks since the fire as they wait for donations and build what they can each day. As the residents explain, rebuilding 24 shacks is a slow and difficult process when they are entirely dependent on donations. Each shack requires at least 400 nails and six sheets of zinc to build, plus numerous pieces of board for the walls and windows that cost at least R300, second-hand. 

This slow method of gathering building materials means that only six of the 24 shacks have been rebuilt, and these have been mostly paid for by the residents themselves. 

Related article:

Thandazwa Mvunyiswa received a four-plate stove and three pieces of corrugated iron, or zinc, for her roof and it cost her more than R4 000 to buy the other materials she needed, over and above the burnt sheets of zinc she salvaged from her burnt shack. 

There was a steady stream of donations in the immediate aftermath of the fire, boosting morale. But Ntukela said the community is still short of nearly all the building materials it needs.

“We are short of nails. We are short of zinc and wood. We rely on donors. Yesterday, someone brought 37 pieces of zinc. But 37 zincs to rebuild 24 homes is too little. We just have to share these out amongst ourselves,” he said.

Five days later, Ntukela said the community was still waiting for zinc and nails and that ward councillor Ayanda Tyokwana was doing everything he could to secure zinc, which a funeral parlour had said it might be able to donate. 

3 July 2019: Thandazwa Mvunyiswa spent more than R4 000 on materials to rebuild her home after it burned down.

Day-to-day ramifications

Another fire on 29 June burnt the shack that was home to Ntukela’s brother and everything inside it to the ground. Ntukela said residents are counting themselves lucky that they managed to prevent the fire from spreading this time, by dousing the shack with buckets of water from a tap more than 100m away.

Ntukela did not lose his home in the 10 June fire, but has spent every day since then trying to co-ordinate the irregular supply of donated building materials. The affected residents are working collectively to rebuild the burnt-down shacks, assisted by volunteers from nearby areas of the township. 

Related article:

One resident, Tunyela Lukwe, 43, is a single mother of a nine-year-old child. A car accident in June 2018 left her paralysed and unable to walk, and she lost her wheelchair in the fire. Lukwe’s situation is dire, she has been able to sleep in a nearby crèche, which had closed for the school holidays, but needs to be out by 8 July when the school reopens. 

Ntukela was hopeful that building material would arrive later that day so several residents could build Lukwe a new shack before the weekend. Losing her wheelchair in the fire has confined her to her temporary bed in the crèche.

Nearby, Xolani Sonti’s home has been “just one zinc away” from completion for about two weeks. Sonti has rebuilt the external walls and most of the roof of his home, but there is a gaping hole waiting for one last zinc panel. Until he completes the roof, he can’t live in the shack with his family or store any possessions. 

When the fire broke out, it was a very windy night and the fire spread so fast and so fiercely that all Sonti was able to save were his identity documents and his child’s birth certificate. Like many, he has not been able to work since the fire and believes he has probably lost his job.

“I have been absent for three weeks now. I was working for a subcontractor, but I don’t think he will be patient enough to wait for me,”  he says.

3 July 2019: Tunyela Lukwe lost her home and wheelchair in the fire. She was living in a nearby crèche but had to move out when the school reopened.

The next meal

Xoliswa Nqimfa lives nearby but not in the area affected by the fire, so she has been cooking voluntarily for the affected families twice a day in the church, where many are still sleeping. Like the building materials, some meals have been provided by non-profit organisations. But the residents are almost entirely dependent on donated food and paraffin for cooking. 

“There is no electricity in our church and we use paraffin to cook. At the moment, we are struggling for paraffin,” said Nqimfa.

The 81 residents who lost their homes also lost all of their possessions. “There are even people who had new furniture, like a couch or a microwave or a washing machine, and they lost everything,” says Nqimfa.

Other residents who spoke to New Frame on condition of anonymity, fearful of reprisals, said officials from the municipality only visited the area when the media came in the immediate aftermath. 

“They used to donate temporary Wendy houses to fire victims. But this time, they told us the money was finished and they couldn’t help us. Yet we need help very urgently,” said one resident. The municipality told them there was no budget for any disaster relief, said the residents.

3 July 2019: Residents have been improvising, using materials such as election posters to finish rebuilding their homes.

‘Catastrophic’ fire

Luvuyo Kiti, a masters student in sociology at Nelson Mandela University is studying race and space in Walmer township. Kiti grew up behind Area Q and still lives in Walmer.

He said government officials had come to the area after the fire and promised to declare Area Q a disaster area. “But where is government now? It is all talk and talk to them. Nothing has been done and it disempowers the people.”

Kiti agreed with Ntukela that Tyokwana had been “very helpful” in co-ordinating donations, but said he had been hampered by the lack of budget from the council. 

Kiti described Walmer township as extremely underdeveloped compared with other townships in the city. 

“This fire was catastrophic. The firefighters arrived very late, they had been called several times by the people before they came. Also, the fire could have been prevented if there was not a situation where there was only one tap for more than 15 to 20 homes. If people had enough land or space to build houses separately, many houses could have been saved that night.”

Glenda “Mamtshawe” Brunette of Walmer Angel Projects has been bringing donations to the area several times a week and says she will now put out a call for more pieces of zinc for the roofs. But at this rate, the Area Q residents say they expect to be living in churches and half-built shacks with no furniture until mid-August, which means they have another month of cold winter nights ahead of them. 

“Shelter is a very important thing to people. If you don’t have shelter, you have nothing. You may receive blankets and clothing, but without shelter you are even at risk of dying on the street,” says Ntukela.

3 July 2019: Half-completed houses, mattresses and other building materials at the site of the fire.
If you want to republish this article please read our guidelines.