Picking up the pieces after Hout Bay fire

2015-12-29 16:00
(Jenni Evans, News24)

(Jenni Evans, News24)

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Cape Town - Junior* sits on the edge of the blackened remains of what once was his home.

He has a sweeping view of the Hout Bay valley because the houses in front of him in Imizamo Yethu burnt down on Boxing Day.

The cause of the fire has not been confirmed, but rumours abound that it was started by a spurned lover; or a candle was knocked over; or there was a fight.

But all of this is meaningless as the smell of ash and burnt plastic hangs in the air. Around him, broken dinner plates and charred coffee mugs with their ears missing stick out of the soot-covered soil.

A Pyrex dish that may have held Christmas lunch lies in the remains of burnt support poles, still to be scooped up by the bulldozers rumbling up and down the terraced settlement.

Men sweat as the summer sun beats down on them, while they push spades into the ground to dig new foundations and level out their plots to rebuild.

'Everybody was running and screaming'

Two women sit possessively on a pile of corrugated iron stacked on one of the stands, not budging, in case somebody claims their spot.

"Everybody was running and screaming," says Junior, a security guard at a retirement village in Hout Bay.
He said he was woken up by his friend banging at his shack door shouting: ''Junior, it's burning, it's burning!"

"I had not gone for a drink with them because I was working the next day. I went out and saw that it was big, near that tree," he says, pointing at a blackened stump.

"The wind kept changing direction. I took one bag and I ran out. All I have left now is my uniform."

He is one of the estimated 1 000 people who shrug when told they are lucky to have survived. 

Unable to concentrate at work, his boss let him have Tuesday off, but he is not sure if it will be paid leave.

It is the second fire in the area in two months and many have nothing left. Even the clothing they are wearing was donated, otherwise they would still be in their pyjamas.

Twenty-five-year-old Nathi Jumba did not get to safety in time.

He died in the fire and many say they last saw him rushing into his shack to save some items.

His sister Okuhle is standing next to a queue where victims are receiving boxes of long-life milk. 

"People saw him going in, but nobody saw him coming out," said Okuhle in a matter-of-fact voice, while holding two litres of milk just given to her by volunteers.

'We don't even have jobs. How can we have insurance?'

It is the second time in two months that their house has burnt down. They were also caught up in a fire in the area in November.

Now they also have to arrange a funeral, and they want to take Nathi to be buried in Tsolo in the Eastern Cape, where the family comes from.

Unemployed Zuzeka Tshayingca remembers relaxing in front of the Saturday night movie before going to bed on Boxing Day. She can't remember which movie it was, but she remembers people crying and screaming as they ran through the narrow passages between shacks, carrying what they could.

"The fire started at the back of our house and we couldn't take anything," says the mother of three young children. She and her husband now have to start from scratch.

At the traffic circle linking Imizamo Yetho with Hout Bay, and the winding road up to wealthy Constantia and Kirstenbosch, red double decker tourist buses slow down as visitors take photographs on their way to popular Cape Town landmarks.

Mzukisi Nkohla doesn't pay any attention to them. He has lived in his shack with his wife and children for 18 years, slowly building up some home comforts, but all they have to show for it is a shred of vinyl flooring unearthed as he levelled his stand after the crumpled zinc and burnt support poles were removed.

"Insurance?" he scoffs when I ask if he was covered for the loss of his TV, fridge, beds, and other items.

"We don't even have jobs. How can we have insurance?"

"I didn't even take a single towel out," says Nkohla, who waits at the traffic lights every day for work. "Do you know what it is like to lose absolutely everything?"

Shack starter kits

His brother Xolisani is clearing the stand next to him. He still seems shocked as he picks up the remnants of his home - no more than sand and broken bricks.

"I don't have anything," he says forlornly.

Many of the residents received calls while they were on holiday in the Eastern Cape and rushed back to see how much damage there was, and to rebuild in time for the new year when their children join them to go back to school.

A burnt page from a school text book shows the remains of a lesson on South Africa's Constitution. It is a book that will no longer be handed down to a younger resident of the settlement.

By midday, contractor Salie Daniels and his team of about 40 people count 106 of the more than 200 shack packs that each family or resident is expected to get from the City of Cape Town.

At a total cost of over R4m, the hurriedly provided shack starter kits consist of support beams, zinc walls and a roof, a window with a pane of glass, hinges, a door, and the screws and nails to hold it all together.

People are expected to line up in the afternoon and if their names are on a list, they will receive a shack pack so that they can start building. None of the houses appear to have the fire retardant paint that the City has been applying in other shack settlements.

Not all of the houses burnt down and families on the outer perimeter of the burn site are helping by looking after saved belongings while the victims bed down with friends and relatives elsewhere in the area.

* Many of the residents preferred to provide only their first name.

Read more on:    cape town  |  fires

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