29 November 2015
Distraught residents wander amongst the ash, corrugated iron, rubble and smoke of Section D in Masiphumelele, a township in Cape Town’s south peninsula. In the last few hours, thousands have lost their homes and possessions. Two fire engines stand at the edge of the burnt areas.
Lunga Mathambo, chair of the Masiphumelele Youth Development Forum, is standing with a few residents on the edge of the burnt landscape. He says that in the early morning, about 1am, a fire started in Section D — no one knows how — and wiped out both Section D and Section E. At first residents in Section E didn’t evacuate because the wind was not blowing the fire their way, but then the wind switched direction.
Theo Lane, spokesperson for the City of Cape Town’s Fire and Rescue Service, says about 1,000 shacks were burnt down and 4,000 people have been displaced. Two people were killed, a man and a woman, but their names are not known to GroundUp at the time of publication. There were no other injuries. Three formal houses also burnt down.
The City has made the township’s community hall available for the displaced, but officials there said they did not expect residents to move in. “People in Masiphumelele prefer to move in with relatives,” a man said.
Residents have already started rebuilding. This morning, groups of young men were fetching wooden poles and other materials for building shacks, and carrying them into Section E.
The home of a GroundUp reporter, Thembela Ntongana, narrowly escaped destruction. She had put her belongings on the street in the middle of the night, in case the fire came. But by noon she was already moving back in. Some of her goods had been stolen. Others were more unfortunate. Ntongana said one woman she knew had lost everything except her ID book.
This wasn’t the only fire in Cape Town in the past 24 hours. Lane says about 125 structures were destroyed in Langa township and 500 people have been displaced there. One man was killed. The cause of that fire is also unknown.
Lane says there’s no single solution to the problem of fires in Cape Town. Although he believes fires in formal and informal houses are as frequent, the problem is that fires in shacks tend to spread, wiping out many other shacks.
There is a rule that shacks have to be three metres apart, but for a range of reasons, it is difficult for people in informal settlements to adhere to this. Sometimes a shack starts off very small, but as a family grows or earns more income, the shack is extended. Sometimes there simply isn’t space on the outskirts of an informal settlement to build more shacks, and so they are built inside the existing settlement, making it more dense.
Lane says that fire officers always urge that the rule be adhered to. “It is extremely difficult to police each informal settlement, and some of them are massive. We can’t monitor this. We don’t have the manpower for it,” he said.