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Durban - Noxolo Mantshange stood on a hill at the bottom of Claridge Road in Clare Estate on Tuesday and surveyed the smouldering ruins of where her shack once stood.
“Right there,” she pointed to the burnt remains of a charcoaled wood structure that once contained all she owned.
“Right there is where we all almost died. The fire started so fast that there was no time to take anything with us. All I could grab was my sick mother, who I put on my back and managed to save, before our house burnt,” she said.
“My kids and my siblings ran for their lives.”
Just after 10pm on Friday, a fire – believed to have been caused by an illegal electricity cable – sparked a massive blaze that ripped through the Burnwood informal settlement, swallowing 147 shacks in an area the size of three football pitches. Most of the residents were indoors, preparing to go to bed, when the smell of smoke forced them outside.
Nwubisa Thoko, who lived right next to where the spark ignited, said that people did not even have a chance to fight the fire with buckets of water, as they usually did.
“It was too quick. The flames were very big. People were screaming, others were going door to door waking up those who were sleeping. I only managed to take my cellphone. We lost everything. Two TVs, a DVD player and a radio. All our clothes were burnt too,” she said.
All that she owns, she now wears on her back, she said.
While most residents claim not to know what started the blaze, some say it was caused by one of the myriad illegal electricity cables that spiral through the settlement.
“The council needs to provide us with proper electricity,” Mantshange said.
Born in the Eastern Cape, Mantshange has lived at the settlement for 10 years. She said this was the fourth fire she that had devastated the community since she had lived there.
“These illegal connections are not just responsible for fires, but are dangerous for the children who play here. If they step on to one of those wires, they can get killed,” she said.
Yesterday, the Red Cross, at the request of the city council, handed out food parcels to affected families while they rebuilt their homes.
The humanitarian organisation had also set up a temporary kitchen, providing two meals a day, to affected people.
Cyril Vezi, the provincial disaster manager at the Red Cross, said that the temporary kitchen was only meant to operate for three days.
“We started on Monday, so in fact should end on Wednesday. But we will get guidance from the municipality. Everything we do here is because we are asked. We do not just go into places without permission, because we do not want to step on anyone’s toes. Right now, our concern is that people rebuild and get on with their lives,” he said.
Bhekisani Ngcobo, the ward councillor in the area, said that the settlement was being prioritised for electrification.
“In fact, we have started at the bottom, but have not reached where the fire started. We are hoping to electrify that whole area as part of our plans to electrify all informal settlements,” he said.
Ngcobo said he would be working with the Human Settlements Department to provide people with building material.
“They won’t be provided with bricks and the like, but with corrugated sheeting to get their houses like they used to be,” he said.