Lerato Tsotetsi holding her 3-month-old daughter, Bohlokwa. Tsotetsi's three children died in a fiery blaze and she could not bury her children because she went into labour the day before the funeral. Picture: Itumeleng English.
Johannesburg - The harrowing consequences of an entire municipality without a single fire truck are highlighted by the pain etched on the face of a Mpumalanga mother who tragically lost three children in a horrible blaze.

Lerato Tsotetsi’s home was one of about 20 to have been razed to the ground in Lekwa Local Municipality (LLM) since July when LLM’s 34-year-old fire engine, which was the only one left, to service more than 115000 residents, finally caved in from years of wear and tear.

Tsotetsi was not able to bury her children, aged 11, 8 and 5, in October as she gave birth to her fourth child a day before the funeral.

The Star has seen invoices showing that LLM paid R573275 to Gauteng-based Merafong Holdings in December to rent two fire trucks for three-to-four months’ use, when newly procured engines were expected to be delivered.

This was after the municipality was hauled before Parliament’s Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs (Cogta) portfolio committee in December to explain a slew of mismanagement issues, including the lack of fire-fighting resources.

Despite paying almost R600000, disbursed by National Treasury, to rent two trucks, none exist in the entire municipality, with firefighters idling around - unable to assist anyone when a fire rages.

Lekwa Local Municipality's only fire engine which is not working.

DA councillor Sithi Silosini said it was revealed in council in November that 20 homes had been destroyed since July, with 12 during the winter months.

The Star visited a grieving Tsotetsi, 29, on Monday in the farming community of Langespruit, where she lives with her husband, her in-laws and her almost 3-month-old daughter, Bohlokwa.

Tsotetsi’s children - girl Sinenhlanhla, 11, boy Katleho, 8 and girl Melokuhle, 5 - burnt to death on October 19 after a candle fell and engulfed their home in flames.

“I was (nine months) pregnant when the fire destroyed our home and I couldn’t attend my children’s funeral because I had given birth the day before.

“I was so weak from my injuries and childbirth that I couldn’t even walk,” said Tsotetsi while cradling Bohlokwa.

“I tried to save my children, who were in their rooms preparing to sleep after I had styled the girls’ hair. They were really excited about their new hairstyles and were looking at themselves in the mirror moments before the candle fell over.

“My husband was outside locking the gate,” Tsotetsi added.

Gruesome burn marks are visible on her legs, feet and arms, and Tsotetsi said she had more scars on her torso and back.

Tsotetsi said her husband, who is a farmworker, also had severe burn marks following his efforts to save the children.

Tsotetsi said that farmers in the area sent water trucks to try and douse the flames after repeated calls to the municipality.

She said that municipal help, including an ambulance, arrived well after the damage and deaths.

The Star sent detailed questions to LLM on Friday and on Monday, acting spokesperson Thando Nkosi said the municipality would answer. It had still not responded by Wednesday.

A parliamentary report dated December 2019, which The Star has seen, states that National Treasury will provide two fire trucks for rental while LLM waits for the procured ones.

However, the Treasury said in a statement to The Star that it knew nothing about the procurement.

This was despite Merafong Holdings conceding that it had been paid R573275 for two fire trucks, but had withdrawn its services “because of challenges with the municipality that we cannot disclose”.

Mlungisi Mtshali, a spokesperson for Cogta, acknowledged that commitments had been made to remedy the Lekwa anomaly, but that the government was not aware about the problems until The Star contacted them for comment.

The municipality's old fire engines that are in a state of disrepair. 

“We have deployed our intervention department to go and investigate and are now waiting for a report. There were commitments that were made in Parliament that have clearly not been met,” Mtshali said.

According to the firefighters, the municipality is indifferent to the needs of the community.

“My brother, these people don't even want to buy toilet paper for us - do you really expect them to deliver fire engines?”

This was the overriding theme of the Lekwa Local Municipality’s (LLM) firefighters, who spoke to The Star on Monday at their aged and decaying station in Standerton, Mpumalanga, about what they called their strenuous work environment.

This tough work environment, the firefighters added, included being abused by community members, who are livid at the lack of service delivery while scores of houses are razed to the ground.

“At a recent community meeting, one woman said that the homes of firefighters should be burnt so we could also experience the pain felt by the rest of the community.

“To be honest, I don’t blame community members for their anger,” said Thabo*, a firefighter at the station.

From behind the fire station, which is atop a hill, the nearby township is visible.

Firefighters said they sometimes watch homes being destroyed by fire, but were powerless to do anything.

“We don't even have personal protective equipment (PPE), and cannot go on a call-out because it is risky to our lives to attend to fires without the necessary protective gear,” Vuyo* said.

The Star has seen a parliamentary report, where LLM said that PPEs had been delivered, but firefighters said their municipal leadership lied to the Cogta portfolio committee.

Mlungisi Mtshali, spokesperson for the national Cogta department, said commitments were made by LLM to acquire fire trucks and PPEs.

Mtshali said the national government had deployed an investigator to LLM because “commitments were clearly not met”.

The Star visited a scrapyard-like municipal workshop where decrepit fire engines, including new municipal vehicles, are ditched and continue to decay.

There is also a R4million tipper truck without any licence plates, with allegations that it is not in use and has been idling at the workshop since it was bought.

* Not their real names.