Anger over family’s fire deaths

2008-12-16 00:00

Survivors of a blaze that killed a family of five at the KwaDukuza informal settlement late on Sunday night waited with community members and local government officials for hours yesterday to discuss the tragedy with Welfare MEC Meshack Radebe.

They were eventually told that Radebe would not arrive as he could not leave an important meeting in Pietermaritzburg. He has, however, promised to help pay for funerals and arrange trauma counselling.

Veli Luthuli, the councillor for ward 11, Groutville, said the five family members — 31-year-old Sithembiso Thusi and his partner, Jabu Dube (30), and her children Sibongiseni (10), Ntombazane (3) and Owami (seven months) — burnt to death before they could be rescued.

Community organisations such as Abahlali baseMjondolo, which has lobbied for the resolution of problems leading to shack fires, has said that paying for funerals does not remove the need to tackle root causes of shack fires. They kill, maim and disfigure and wipe out the few possessions of the poorest South Africans.

According to a study commissioned by the organisation in August this year, there have been an average of 10 shack fires a day in South Africa over the past five years. In neighbouring eThekwini, there were 299 shack fires (an average of 25 per month) during 2007.

Candles, paraffin stoves and illegal electrical connections are the main causes. The fires spread rapidly because houses in informal settlements are built closely together using highly flammable materials such as wood, plastic sheeting and even cardboard.

“There are many challenges, but we are trying,” Luthuli said, adding that a full investigation into the fire is already under way. The family is thought to have been sleeping when the fire started.

She said the KwaDukuza Municipality has tried to address the problem of illegal electric connections by offering an amnesty to residents who have tampered with electricity meters.

Several members of the community have come forward, she added, and the municipality is working to sort out the unsafe connections.

Luthuli said, however, that a long overdue housing project, which would see the creation of 3 000 RDP houses during 2009, would provide a more effective, long-term solution. She said the housing project has been held up by illegal land issues and the need to expropriate land.

Radebe could not be reached for comment.

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