A dull, smoky smell wafted past his nose, probably because the fire was still smouldering at the time.
Later he went out to investigate, only to walk into raging flames that left him counting millions of rands in losses and damages.
Johannesburg businessperson Abbey Chikane (63) speaks with a sorrowful voice as he narrates the heart-wrenching tale of how, a fortnight ago at his newly acquired fruit farm, he found the main block – used for administration, residential, processing and storage – engulfed in flames.
Chikane had decided to go into the lounge upstairs to watch the news while his wife went to the other side of the building for a read in the boardroom.
Soon he was engaged in an inefficacious battle with the flames.
“I smelt some smoke and walked out of the lounge … I saw fire, lots of fire, and the first thing that came to mind was the fire extinguisher downstairs.
“I used the first canister of the extinguisher, which did not do much to the fire … I realised when I went out to look for another canister that the place was unbearably hot. The fire was blazing and the burning ceiling was now caving in and landing on me,” Chikane said.
“I tried to save our farm, but I could face those flames no more. I screamed to my wife, telling her that we needed to vacate the place as the fire was now spreading to the exit point.”
He alleged that when help finally arrived, it was disappointingly in the form of a single firefighter, who stood by and took pictures of the flames.
“He started taking pictures of the burning building and I asked why because everything would be finished by the time he got to the real work. He told me that he was alone and that he had called for reinforcement … He added that there was also not enough water,” Chikane said.
“The fire was now overwhelmingly furious and could be heard from as far as the R28 [which connects Krugersdorp with Vereeniging via Randfontein]. Later on, because the farm is formerly a mine property, the nearby Sibanye and Goldfields fire department responded and arrive to assist the municipal firefighters, who were struggling with water, but it was already late … The whole building was gutted by the fire, finished.”
The fire department had been his only hope after he had tried and failed to put off the fire with an extinguisher.
Chikane was devastated when he could not reach the fire station on the phone, so he decided drive to the Westonaria Local Municipality fire station himself.
“I came across a police vehicle as I was driving. I flagged them down and asked the officers to call the fire department. It took them 30 minutes to arrive,” he said.
City Press sent questions to the municipality regarding the incident, but there had been no response by the time of publishing.
A shattered dream
Chikane and his family moved into the farm from Fourways in December last year, after signing a long-term lease agreement with the national department of agriculture, land reform and rural development, with the option to buy the farm.
His ultimate goal was to one day own the farm.
“Since February, I have been working on a 10-year business plan. This was a large commercial farm with facilities and infrastructure that catered for agroprocessing. It has 500 hectares of land which had orchards of peaches, plums and apples among other fruit. We subsequently introduced vegetable crops, including spinach, cabbage and carrots,” he said.
Chikane said the huge block that was burnt was the epicentre of the farm, which he described as a “factory-like building of about 4 000m2”.
He said after all the flames were dead and the cracking noise of the fire breaking the building structures had subsided he realised that he was “only left with what I was wearing”.
“Four trucks, two bakkies as well as furniture and appliances worth more than R1.5 million were all destroyed in the fire. It is too hard to quantify the overall damage and losses in monetary terms, but it is huge,” Chikane said.
Reggie Ngcobo, the spokesperson for the department of agriculture, land reform and rural development, said no assessment had been conducted to date to determine the extent and cost of the damage.
However, Ngcobo said, security personnel had conducted site visits on the same day the building caught fire and three days later senior management of the department were also on the ground.
An assessment will be concluded once the lockdown is lifted or eased to allow non-essential staff to go to work, he said.
He said the department ordinarily had policies to help farmers in crisis in the form of grants and limited financial support, which would be informed by the pending damage assessment report.
Expert advice will indicate whether it would be appropriate to demolish and build afresh, or to support and refurbish the burnt structures.
“The lessee in such circumstances may be required to apply for financial development support, where the relevant approvals committees will make a decision based on their criteria. Where an allocation of funds is made, such allocation will depend on the size of the request and the availability of funds,” Ngcobo said, adding that the process ordinarily takes 90 days, apart from the release of funds to the relevant beneficiary.
Contractually, he said, the department passes the risk of insurance and protection of the farm to the lessee once a lease agreement is concluded, and such insurance must cover the farm and all its assets at least.
Fighting crime instead of farming
While Chikane admitted that “I could be saying it out of anger”, he suspected that “the same guys we’ve been fighting as they stole from us are responsible”.
“We have been under attack from former mineworkers who were retrenched and found themselves starving. These are people who attacked us everyday from December 23 2019 to January 3 2020. When the lockdown started they did the same thing again, stealing things from building materials,” Chikane alleged.
He said the damage caused by the suspected perpetrators was huge.
“They stole cables, a transformer and went on to vandalise the pipeline that feeds us water from the Sibanye mine. I have fought with them physically. The was an exchange of fire between myself, my security and them. We recovered 90% of what they stole because we’d chase and catch them in many incidents,” Chikane said.
He said cases were opened with the police, but he came to realise the police were “afraid of these men”, who live in mine properties and terrorise people.
“When we caught them, they would tell us that they were doing this because they had no food, they were unemployed and were scared of starving. We’d offer jobs to some of them, but this is not just one group … There are many of them,” he said.
Chikane said compared with the police, the men were armed to the teeth.
“They fight with AK-47s and the police are afraid of them. These are the people I suspect smoked us out of the house, although I’m reluctant to conclude that is the case as we await the outcome of the fire expert’s investigation.
“The owner of a neighbouring farm has abandoned his property and the zama zamas have occupied it, illegally mining gold from there. When I call the police to go and remove them, they say they are afraid of these people.”
He said police had admitted their fear.
“They can’t go there, they admit those people are better armed than us. I once went in with the police and about 19 of the guys retreated and I insisted on approaching them for a chat because they are now my neighbours,” Chikane said.
“I walked to them with my absent white flag in the air … I told them that I was not fighting and that I was there to look for those who stole from me. They said they were not there to steal from me but to do their mining. They even promised to help me catch the thieves.”
Police in the nearby Bekkersdal Police Station said they understood that a case had been opened at Midrand Police Station, but the docket was yet to be transferred.
Bekkersdal acting station commander Lieutenant Colonel Andile Moshani said there were proposals about opening a satellite police station close to the crime-ridden farm area.
Moshani said there were incidents of illegal mining in the mine farms, but insisted that police were “making arrests now and then”.
“Two weeks back there were about three murders there. It seems they were in a factional fight among themselves,” he said.
He said there were two groups frequently fighting for the territory, with one group staying in a place called Speruperu and others based in an informal settlement in Bekkersdal.
“Most of the time they have firearms. It is not easy for us to find them because they mainly operate at night and when we find them they run into the abandoned shafts underground. They probably have their own intelligence.”
He said the police had mobilised the SA National Defence Force to join in a recent raid operation.
“We went there with soldiers, but we did not find anyone,” he said.
Moshani said “the rumour that the illegal miners are heavily armed” had not been backed up with evidence.
“What we know is that they do have firearms, but we have never recovered those firearms or arrested anyone in possession of a firearm.”
More than 30 of them were arrested, but none was armed, he said, “so it seems there are those who arre armed but they do not stay in the area”.
He said it was impossible for police to continue with most pursuit because the illegal miners run into the maze of underground shafts.
“We have never come face to face in a confrontation with them because they always run away. We have never recovered firearms around there, but we have picked up bodies of people who have been killed.
“When we arrest them, we charge them also with violation of the lockdown regulations because no one is allowed to go out,” Moshani said.
Ngcobo said the department was aware of general criminality in the area and had advised Chikane to report all incidents of that nature to the SA Police Service for investigation and prosecution.
The department was in the process of deploying its own security to protect the farm because Chikane was currently not on the property.
“This, however, is a stop-gap measure as the duty of securing the farm lies with the lessee.”
Willing to help those stealing from him
Chikane may have lost much in the fire, but he is determined to reignite his dream of farming. Interestingly, he also has those who have been tormenting him in mind.
He wants to get the farm up and running so that jobs can be created to cater for the many former miners who find themselves jobless from retrenchments, with most of them turning to crime for survival.
“I spend more time fighting these people than farming …
“This is a commercial farm which is supposed to make R80 million annually, but we’re hardly there as we’re more busy with security matters than with actual farming. We could be creating jobs if people were not stealing from us, but I still believe that we can work together in various sectors to create more jobs and help them,” Chikane said.
“I would like the mines to know that they have a responsibility to work with us to create jobs for these people. Police don’t have the capacity to deal with the situation.”