Durban - Their faces grim and strained, shack dwellers picked through the charred rubble of their homes on Sunday after a devastating fire left one dead and about 800 without shelter.
There were reports from residents that three fires had broken out on Saturday night. The first two were controlled but the last one at about 9pm destroyed 258 of the 280 shacks at the Matambo settlement in Red Hill, Durban.
For many, the hope of finding any possessions that may have been spared the ferocious fire, was in vain.
People scrambled to find their belongings but most had been destroyed, said Robin Candy, chairman of the Greenwood Park community police forum.
He said the ruins were still smouldering on Sunday.
“About 90 percent of the shacks were burnt and I think some of the bordering houses might have been damaged,” said Candy, who was called to the scene and witnessed the inferno.
Shack dweller Bheki Sozoyi, 35, said he awoke to a scene of chaos, screams and utter devastation.
Sozoyi said all he saw was raging flames coming from all directions and people running.
“I also decided to run for my life with the rest,” he told the Daily News on Sunday.
“After the fire was put out hours later, I realised that I had not seen my uncle and along with some neighbours went to where his shack was.”
Sozoyi said he was in shock when he saw the charred remains of his uncle Bill’s body on the bed.
“We called the police who were still around and his remains were taken away. I was crushed that I was not able to save him because he was very good to me,” he said.
Sozoyi said that when he went back to his uncle’s shack on Sunday to see if he could salvage any of his belongings, he made yet another gruesome discovery.
“I found his bones which I think were his legs,” he said. “I still cannot believe that he died in such a horrific way. I will never forget this day.”
Sozoyi said he had last seen his uncle, who was about 60 years old, on Saturday afternoon when they had chatted over drinks with a few friends.
“Life is really unfair. Just yesterday (Saturday) he was alive and well and now there is almost nothing left of him,” he said.
They had lived at the settlement for more than 17 years after relocating from the Eastern Cape to find work.
Another resident, Sthembiso Mkekeni, said the events of Saturday night were “very strange” as there were three separate fires at the settlement that night.
“It was about 8pm on Saturday when a shack went up in flames but we managed to put the fire out. Not long after, another shack went up in flames and we put it out. But the fire at 9pm was just too great and there was nothing we could do but run for our lives.”
Mkekeni said most of the residents were unable to save anything from their shacks.
He said it appeared that one of the shacks had contained a lot of plastic, which made the fire spread even faster.
“It is so hard for us. We basically spent the rest of the night sitting on the road and wondering what we were going to do. Even now, we still don’t have a plan,” Mkekeni said.
Ward councillor Deochand Ganesh said the fire started just after 8pm at the lower end of the settlement and spread quickly.
“One elderly man was trapped in his shack and was killed. There were other minor injuries but not life threatening,” he said.
“Thirty-nine shacks were saved because they were separated by a road.”
Ganesh said tents were being put up and some people had offered garages at businesses as temporary shelter.
“Sassa (the South African Social Security Agency) has come on board to issue grant cards and food parcels and a food kitchen is being set up.”
He said the homeless should not expect to be given permanent alternative shelter immediately.
“People must be patient with the council because there is a backlog of houses,” he said.
“Distribution can’t be determined by damage to houses because then it encourages people to start their own fires.”
Wilfred Mkhwanazi, spokesman for eThekwini Disaster Management, told the Daily News he was on site trying to verify the number of people displaced and shacks destroyed.
“There are about 258 shacks that were destroyed which we could verify by the numbering. We think about 800 people have been displaced but that’s hard to verify because some say there were 10 in a shack. This hasn’t been confirmed.”
Mkhwanazi said they would erect a tent to house the women and a separate tent for men as well as toilet facilities.
“Sassa is assisting with food parcels and a number of NGOs have been called on to assist, such as the Red Cross.”
He said disaster management would provide soup and blankets.
Last week it was reported that Matambo residents had tried to build shacks on privately owned land nearby.
Ganesh said landowners had removed the shacks and building had since stopped.
“For the sake of peace we decided to put the plan on hold until we get clarity on whether we can build or not,” Mkekeni said.