A group of men collapse some of the shacks in the path of a fire at Joe Slovo settlement on Saturday night. They are hoping to create a void that will prevent the fire from advancing. Picture: Timothy Bernard 20.12.2014

 

Johannesburg - Their bags had already been packed. Suitcases were bursting at the seams with children’s clothes and toys for Christmas, and gifts for other family members.

Neighbours had been bid goodbye, and in a few hours, vehicles would be arriving at the Slovoville informal settlement in Coronationville, Joburg, to take those travelling home for Christmas to various parts of South Africa.

But before they could leave, a raging fire ravaged the informal settlement they call home.

By the time it was over, a sorrowful mood hung over the informal settlement as shocked residents faced a bleak Christmas.

“It is very hard for me to accept what happened. I have lost everything, it is painful,” Mmoniemang Mokgotsi said.

On Saturday night, Mokgotsi was cooking supper when she suddenly smelt smoke in the air.

She went outside to find out where it was coming from.

It was the shack next to hers.

She quickly rushed back inside.

But the fire had spread so quickly that when she tried to enter her shack, there was smoke everywhere.

The thought of her daughter and one-month-old grandchild burning to death nearly drove Mokgotsi out of her mind. Crying hysterically, she tried to get back into the shack, but was overpowered by the smoke and she fainted.

Mokgotsi’s younger sister, Tamatie Maje, 39, lives next door. She found that her sister had collapsed at the door.

She jumped over her and searched the smoke-filled shack for her niece and newborn baby.

She grabbed the infant and dragged her sleeping niece out of the bed and ran out.

Two men picked up the collapsed Mokgotsi from the floor and took her to hospital.

When she came to at the hospital, Mokgotsi suddenly remembered the fire. She thought her family had died in the blaze and started crying.

“It was as if I had gone crazy. I could not even remember a number for the staff to phone to find out,” she said.

After calming down, Mokgotsi remembered the cellphone numbers and discovered that her family members were safe.

While grateful to be alive, Mokgotsi was close to tears as she explained what she had lost.

A tuckshop with all the supplies, R3 000 for stokvel members, R900 which belonged to her, as well as furniture, documents and all the children’s new clothes and gifts that went up in flames.

Mokgotsi’s husband is a fruit and vegetables hawker. His supplies also perished in the fire.

The money that the couple made from their business a few hours before the fire had been put in an enamel bowl. All that remained on Sunday were charred coins.

Some people had already gone home for Christmas when they got news of the fire and had to return immediately.

Vuyo Mofokeng, 41, was supposed to have left for KwaZulu-Natal at 3am on Sunday.

The fire broke out seven hours before his planned trip.

Although he lost everything, including the gifts he had bought for his wife and children, he managed to save a few things.

His neighbour, however, wasn’t so lucky. He is a security guard and was at work when the fire broke. All he had left was the uniform he was wearing.

“I gave him some clothes so that he could get out of his uniform and start rebuilding his shack.

“I am not going to enjoy this Christmas. I had called the children to tell them I had bought them new clothes because they did so well at school. I wanted to make them happy, but I lost it all in the fire,” the 41-year-old said.

 

Residents fume over tardy response

Joburg’s Emergency Management Services has again been criticised for taking too long to help victims of shack fires.

Residents of the Slovoville informal settlement said that as they scuttled about with bucketsof water to try to stop the blaze, firefighters folded their arms and did nothing for a few hours.

“Paramedics were scolding them, saying their service was poor. They were asking them how they could stand there and do nothing, while people were losing their belongings,” one resident said.

The woman, who did not want to be named, said it was only when residents threatened to stone the firefighters that they started putting the fire out.

Joburg EMS spokeswoman Nana Radebe denied this. She said the water tanker carries only 3 500 litres of water, which is used up in a few minutes.

The problem was that only one hydrant was working. The other one was broken, she said.

“We did not take hours before putting out the fire; the hydrant was not working. We managed to connect to the other hydrant, but the residents were hostile and grabbed the hoses because they wanted to put out the fire themselves,” Radebe said.

In August, angry residents of Platform Five in Jeppestown stoned firefighters who responded to a fire at their informal settlement.

When the firefighters arrived on the scene, it was apparently three hours since they had been called out and three people had perished in the inferno.

At the same time, about 2km away, at the George Gogh informal settlement, firefighters responding to a blaze were nearly assaulted by residents, who accused them of being useless when their fire truck allegedly ran out of water while they were trying to put out the fire.

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The Star