It's an image that sent shockwaves around the world: a terrified mother tossing her toddler from a burning building as a crowd on the ground reach their arms up to grab the child.
Holding her head in her hands, the young mom waits to see if her daughter lands safely into the embrace of the sea of strangers.
She does – and the footage of the child flying through the air towards outstretched arms has become symbolic of the horror and the hope that have characterised one of the darkest periods in South Africa’s history.
Wanton destruction on the one hand, the banding together of people on the other.
For Naledi Manyoni (26), gratitude doesn’t begin to describe it – although the day she was forced to throw her child into thin air will haunt her forever.
“I couldn’t think of anything except saving my baby’s life,” she tells YOU. “We were inhaling smoke and we could hear things exploding right behind us. There was no time to think it through – I just threw her in the air hoping someone would catch her.”
If she hadn’t been caught, two-year-old Melokuhle may well have become another statistic of the protests that spiralled into an orgy of looting and violence, leaving 212 people dead and billions of rands worth of damage to shops, warehouses, businesses and infrastructure.
The blaze that engulfed Naledi’s building in Smith Street in central Durban was started by people stealing from shops on the ground floor. The flames quickly spread upstairs to the City Life Pearl Towers’ block of flats where she lives on the 16th floor with her fiancé, Simthembile Matomane, and their daughter.
Simthembile had gone to the shops to get some essentials that day, leaving the stay-at-home mom and the baby at home. Soon afterwards, all hell broke loose. When she heard the fire alarm go off, Naledi knew she needed to act.
“People were already running in all directions,” she recalls. “There was smoke, and I could hear the security shouting in the corridors, instructing everybody to move out of the building. “But the lifts were no longer working.” She hurried back to her flat to grab little Melokuhle.
“We ran down the stairs, from the 16th floor to the third floor. Unfortunately, the third floor was already engulfed in flames, so we couldn’t use the stairs anymore.” Just as she thought they were trapped they found a way out through the third-floor balcony.
To escape the blazing building, Naledi needed to leave her daughter on the third-floor balcony and jump to the ledge on the second floor. “Once I was on the second floor somebody threw her to me.” But Naledi quickly realised they were stuck on the ledge.
There were no firemen or emergency services on the scene and no way to get back into the building. The crowd that had gathered below urged Naledi to throw her daughter down to them.
“I had to act quickly,” she says. “I tried to throw her in the air but she was clinging to me – she kept tightening her grip on me. She was frightened and screaming.
Naledi knew she had to act fast, so she wrenched her daughter off her and hurled her off the ledge. “I watched her fly from the building and saw them catching her,” she says. “Everything happened so fast. For a second my mind went blank. I was in shock and feared for her life.”
Once she saw her child was safe, she jumped to safety. “The crowd encouraged me to jump and they caught me,” she says.
Simthembile (36), who had rushed home when Naledi wasn’t answering his calls, arrived just as his daughter was flung from the building and caught below. “I’ll always be thankful to that crowd,” he says. “Those people and Naledi performed a heroic act,” he says.
The little family is back in their flat now – mercifully it was spared the flames and pronounced fit for habitation. But mom and daughter are traumatised and will need counselling to help them deal with what’s happened.
“Our daughter walks around saying ‘Mommy threw me away, she threw me to the ground’,” Naledi says. “I’ve also developed a phobia of heights and suddenly I’m scared of staying indoors so I spend a lot of time in the car. “I only go inside the building to bath and feed the child.”
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At around the same time Naledi and her baby managed to escape, more and more residents were frantically trying to flee the smoking building.
Bongekile Mtetwa was just a few feet from Naledi when she fell and broke her ankle. The 32-year-old makeup artist was climbing down a ladder that was propped up against the side of the building when it broke.
Bongekile was in so much pain and shock she didn’t even notice what was happening right next to her. “I lost my mind a bit,” she tells us. “I didn’t see the mother throwing the child. I was there next to them, but I didn’t see it.”
She managed to drag herself some way across the third-floor ledge and was rescued by a maintenance worker at the building who made his way to her. He bound her leg with his T-shirt and helped her hop down the ladder to the ground floor.
“When I became aware of what was happening, I became angry because people were taking pictures and videos and I was so embarrassed,” she recalls. Bongekile needed surgery for her broken ankle but she was turned away from Addington Hospital in South Beach, Durban, because it had no capacity.
She was treated at King Edward VIII Hospital on the Berea where medical staff put her leg in a cast, “but they didn’t have beds, so I slept in the passageway”, she says. Desperate, she called her sister, who works as a nurse at a clinic in Eshowe to see if they could accommodate her. But she needed a lift from Durban to Eshowe, nearly two hours away.
Bongekile posted a plea for help on social media and was overwhelmed when a stranger recognised her from the footage of the burning building and offered to drive her all the way there free of charge.
She’s since had plates and screws inserted into her ankle to connect it to the rest of her leg and is set to undergo surgery soon. Bongekile is now on the mend. “It’s going to take a lot of time, dedication and so much more,” she says. “But I’ll be able to walk again.”
The petrol station owner
The INK area, made up of the townships of Inanda, Ntuzuma and KwaMashu, was left with only one petrol station after the chaos. Mzwayi Ndwandwe, the owner of that station, tells us he’s under “enormous pressure” to service all the surrounding townships.
“At some point we had no petrol and diesel. I had to beg the suppliers to come and fill the tanks. That means I had to hire private security because it’s still not safe,” he says.
The 49-year-old says things are so bleak he’s seen motorists sleeping in their cars so they could be first in line to get petrol. “It’s a sad situation and we’re hoping it gets resolved as soon as possible.”
The vegetable seller
Nomcebo Manqele from Pinetown near Durban sells fruit and vegetables outside a Pep store in her neighbourhood.
“I was attending to my table when the looters came,” she tells us. “They started by burning Pep and my stall caught fire. I couldn’t save anything because they were threatening to burn us alive if we tried to get in their way. Within seconds everything was up in flames.”
Now she’s doesn’t know how she’s going to put food on the table.
“I’m sitting at home doing nothing,” the 43-year-old mom of three says. “I have no food to feed my children and what’s worse is even if I borrow money and start afresh, I can’t place any orders because all the suppliers are closed.”
The community leader
Nhlanhla Lux Dlamini has been hailed as a hero for his quick actions in protecting Maponya Mall in Soweto. When malls in Gauteng started coming under attack, Nhlanhla (33) mobilised men in his community to take a stand against the looters and protect the shopping complex.
“The last-standing mall happened to be in Pimville, where I live, so sleeping at the gates of Maponya Mall was logical. Had it been in Protea [Glen], I would be sleeping there too,” he says.
Although the damage to the community is severe, Nhlanhla believes Soweto will bounce back. “There is a point of realisation among some looters where they snap out of it and realise they’re messing up.
We understand how important it is to rebuild and we now have people at the malls cleaning up.
“Our people still stand, and we are united,” he adds. “When people come together nothing is impossible.”