Living with horrific reality of shack fires

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CAPE TIMES

Shaun Jonas, from Masiphumelele, has rebuilt his shack that burnt down on Christmas Day with materials the city council supplied. He was given a new television by friends. Picture: Bheki Radebe

Cape Town -

Blessing Chingore was woken at 4am on Tuesday by the screams of his friend in a neighbouring shack in Masiphumelele. When he got outside the flames were licking through the roof. The single door was chained shut with the lock on the inside.

He started kicking at the door, broke open a section and saw his friend on fire. “He was alive, but he was burning, his hair was burning because he had dreadlocks. Then he fell down. People were running for their lives because the fire was spreading. Then the roof fell in. It was painful to watch.”

His name was Johanne Farirepi, he was from Zimbabwe and he was just 22 when he died. He was so badly burnt that the authorities said they would have to take DNA samples from his brother to identify him.

Fires in the shackland areas of Masiphumelele are one of the hardships people live with. They happen often, fuelled by the fact that many have no electricity so cook on open flames and use candles, while the plastic, timber and cardboard materials used in building them turn the shacks into tinder boxes. Some are so close together that if you put your hands on your hips in the alleys between them, your elbows touch the walls of the shacks on either side.

No fire trucks or ambulances can get between them.

Nelisa Jange-Dondolo is a community development worker in Masiphumelele, employed by the city council.

On Christmas Day there was a fire in Masiphumelele in the backyard shacks of the settlement’s formal housing area, not far from her own house. The area has tarred roads and the fire engines were there fighting the blaze. While they were working, a youngster sat on the side of the road sobbing. His mother was in one of the shacks that had burnt.

“Some people brought him to me and said please keep him until the fire brigade is finished,” Jange-Dondolo said.

When the flames were doused, the firemen found his mother’s body.

Thulani Mandlantse, 13, is from Sebokeng and was visiting his aunt with his mother, Lobuhle Mandlantse. He was not there when the fire started, but came home to see his aunt’s shack in flames. Thulani has relatives up country and one in Khayelitsha, but until it can be decided where he will go, Jange-Dondolo has taken him in.

On Thursday, she got him registered in the local school. It is another mouth to feed, she says, but what else can she do.

Shaun Jonas was coming home from his job as a chef at the Brass Bell on Christmas Day when he saw the smoke and flames over Masiphumelele.

He had had his 4mx2.5m shack since 2004. It was destroyed.

On Thursday, Jonas was putting the finishing touches to his new shack, built with materials the city council has given those whose shacks were destroyed. It is just wide enough to take his double bed. He is in a backyard of a formal house and an electric cord runs from there to his shack. It ends in an adapter with six items plugged in, including a new TV given by someone who heard of his plight.

His shack abuts that of the one where the woman died. “She was with another man and he woke up when bits of a burning sail on the roof started falling on him. The shack was locked with a big lock on the inside, but it was full of smoke and he could not find the key. Luckily he could lift up part of the door and escape.”

Earlier last month there was a fire in the part of Masiphumelele built in a seasonal wetland. Four people died.

Brian Sityebi says the residents know how it started. “A woman came home from the shebeen and she was drunk but she started cooking. Then she fell asleep and the stove was still on.”

She died in the fire with three others.

melanie.gosling@inl.co.za

Cape Times


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