A hero and one of his kind. A selfless human being who put others before himself and is deserving of the Mendi Decoration for Bravery.
These were just some of the words used by South Africans who took to social media platforms Twitter and Facebook to honour, thank and show appreciation to 37-year-old Zikhaya Sithole who was left scarred, after he plunged into a burning shack in an effort to save the lives of two toddlers who were trapped inside the flames engulfed structure.
“Dear Mr President, I would like to nominate Zikhaya Sithole for the Mendi Decoration for Bravery. On this particular day he answered to the highest call, and lives the consequences every day. This is true bravery. Regards, NC,” said one individual.
The decoration is awarded to South African citizens who have performed an extraordinary act of bravery that placed their lives in great danger, or who lost their own lives in trying to save the life of another person, or by saving property, in or outside the Republic of South Africa.
The founder of Country Duty – a non-profit organisation and social movement that brings South Africans of all creeds and races together to find solutions to daily issues – Tumi Sole, was among one of the many citizens who hailed Sithole, who lives in Orange Farm in the South of Johannesburg, as “a true hero!”
Speaking to City Press on Monday morning, Sole said he felt it was imperative that civilians like Sithole who perform acts of selflessness and heroism were acknowledged, thanked and assisted.
“Although Twitter can at times get toxic, it is a great platform to effect change and do good. Sithole risked his life for the little ones and to me and others is a hero,” he said.
“My tweet is a call to South Africans to come together and do our part in trying to assist Zikhaya [Sithole] and thus a collaborative effort.”
On Sunday, City Press reported that Sithole, who is a welder by profession, plunged into a burning shack to try to save two young children aged one and two, who lived a few houses away from him.
Speaking to City Press at the time, Sithole said he wished he could have done more to save the two young boys.
Both toddlers succumbed to the effects of the fire. The one-year-old died at the scene. The two-year-old was taken to Stretford Clinic, but he died a few minutes after arrival.
Sithole’s heroic efforts led to burns on his face, arms, hands and legs. His eyesight was so badly affected by the fire that he has to wear sunglasses to shield his eyes from light.
His injuries mean that he cannot work any more.
Sole said: “We’re hoping that a plastic surgeon(s) or someone who knows one will heed the call and do an assessment with a hope that he gets assistance and a possible change to his life.”
Following his engagement with Sithole on Sunday night, the human rights lawyer has since shared [on Sunday night] Sithole’s banking details on Twitter and, according to the latter, a number of South Africans have made donations in their quest to assist him.
“For now, given that he is unable to work and his vision and limbs been impacted, South Africans continue to pledge financially so that he is able to meet his daily needs,” he told City Press.
An overwhelmed and equally “grateful” Sithole, on Monday afternoon, told City Press that he woke up to bank notifications where “people I don’t even know have found it in their hearts to share and help in anyway they can”.
“I am at a loss for words and cannot begin to express my gratitude at the support South Africans have given me. Because I am unable to work, all the help will go a long way and beyond.”
Following the incident, Sithole was hospitalised for more than a month and has had to see a physiotherapist to try to regain motion in both of his hands. While Sithole is heartbroken by the death of the young boys, he said he “would not have done anything differently”.
City Press also spoke to Sicelo Nkosi (27), father of the two toddlers who lost their lives.
An emotional Nkosi said although he still lives in Orange Farm, he had subsequently moved from Extension Five, where his shack caught alight, to Extension One, because “I could not bare to be there after what happened to my children.”
“Instead of things getting easier, it has gotten tougher with each day that passes.”
While still reeling from the pain and loss of his children, Nkosi said; “I owe Zikhaya [Sithole] my life. I basically grew up looking up to him as an older brother. He is a brother to me and the fact that he went the extra mile and put his life at risk for my family, is something I can never thank him enough for. How do you repay someone for such an act,” he said.
Nkosi, who is employed as a security guard, recalled the call he received from the mother of his children.
“I was working the night shift and I remember her calling me and telling what had happened,” he said.
“Some of my neighbours came to fetch me from work and we went to my residence where the fire had happened. I could not believe the sight of my now burnt shack.”
“I found out that my youngest child had lost his life while in the shack. We headed to Stretford Clinic in Extension Two where my spouse and older child were.”
Nkosi quietly added: “When I got there, I was told that my other child had also lost his life.”
The boys’ mother, Sinokwethemba Mapatane (23), said that Sithole’s act of heroism was one that she could never be able to repay.
Having just returned from her hometown in Kwazulu-Natal, Mapatane says she is yet to see Sithole.
“When I saw his picture in the paper, it broke me inside. It was as if I was dying. It pains me deeply because I don’t think there is anything I can ever do to repay him for the sacrifice he made that night,” she said emotionally.
Mapatane said Sithole was and will always be a big brother to her.
“He was always helpful. No matter what problem I had, he was there. I can never wrap my head around the fact that he was willing to sacrifice his own life for own and for the lives of my two boys.”
She spoke about the events which transpired on that fateful night.
“I shut the door behind me as I was going to the shop and I could not leave it open because I did not want to leave the door wide open for passersby and to prevent the kids from simply wandering off.
“It was not locked,” she told City Press.
“I went to the shop which is a short distance from our shack. As I was at the shop, I saw something resembling a shooting star, coming from the direction of our home.”
As I tried to check, I realised there was smoke coming from the shack. I tried to open the door and my attempts fell short. I called for Zikhaya, who was approaching from down the road.
“We both attempted to enter the now burning shack, but in an effort to protect me, he quickly pushed me out the way, for my own safety, and entered the shack.
“I soaked my body in water because I wanted to enter the shack too.”
The distraught mother added: “It was dark and Zikhaya managed to locate my older son (Sibusiso), I took him in my hands and tried to cover him with my water-soaked jacket,” she said.
“After a while, the fire was extinguished but my youngest child (Sizolwami) was still inside.”
The family had lived in the shack since November last year.
Mapatane said “no words or acts could ever be enough to show my gratitude to Sithole”.
Among a number of other campaigns, #CountryDuty has been at the forefront of various causes and campaigns including rallying South Africans to “galvanise support for communities in the townships of Khayelitsha [in the Western Cape] and Alexandra [in Gauteng] affected by shack fires through donations.