Every morning when I drive to work, I pass the Bank of Lisbon building, now a burnt-out shell, on my right.
I look up its deserted, blackened floors, and its windows stare back at me as if to remind me of the urgency required to fix the building and make sure we don’t have another tragedy like the one we witnessed in September.
It has been more than a month since the tragedy, yet it feels like it happened yesterday. For many of us who work here, the building is a constant reminder of the tragedy. When we look at it, we remember Simpiwe Moropane, Khathutshelo Muedi and Mduduzi Ndlovu, who risked their lives to save workers in the death-trap building.
The tragedy is captured well by ace cartoonist Bethuel Mangena, a quiet man with a sharp pen, who they call Warra around here. It’s one of the most memorable cartoons we have published.
A fireman kneels with his back to the burning Bank of Lisbon building. With his arms folded and his helmet by his side, tears flow down his cheeks. He is clearly devastated. The poster on the left corner of the frame reads: “We salute our fallen heroes.”
Mangena says he was just doing his job and didn’t think the cartoon would find itself framed on the walls of the homes of the families of the fallen firefighters, and in Joburg mayor Herman Mashaba’s office.
It’s probably not even his best yet, but for me this cartoon is not only a constant reminder of the tragedy next door, but also a tribute to the brave men and women we often don’t recognise for their selflessness in the service of humanity.
Cartoonists are journalists. Through their drawings, they address issues close to us. Sometimes, they find a fun way of telling a story, and in other cases, they use their pens to capture a tragedy in fewer words.
Mangena’s cartoon is, for me, the best depiction of the Bank of Lisbon tragedy. And when our Metro editor Anna Cox came to me to suggest that we frame it and give it to the families of the three fallen firefighters, I readily agreed. We also then decided to give a copy to mayor Mashaba.
Yesterday, we spent the morning with the families of the three brave men. It was a sombre occasion, and it was clear that the wound is still very fresh. Joining us for breakfast in our building were Mashaba, member of the mayoral committee for safety Michael Sun, acting Emergency Services boss Arthur Mqwa, Joburg Metro police department chief David Tembe and two of my favourite spokespeople, Wayne Minnaar and Robert Mulaudzi.
Trust me to break protocol. Nobody told me that I should have given the floor to Mqwa first, then Sun and finally Mashaba. I went straight for the big man who holds the keys to this city. Eish!
Mangena’s cartoon will now be a constant reminder for Mashaba, and to the families of the brave firefighters, that we must never forget. The mayor tells me it will occupy a special spot in his office. I hope it also reminds him that the investigation into the tragedy must be swift, and that the families find closure.
I hope they will also receive the cartoon as our token of appreciation for the bravery of their sons, who must not die in vain and whose names must stay in our minds forever. Often, as journalists, we chase the story to its end, then we forget about the human face of a tragedy. We move on to the next big story.
But for us, the Bank of Lisbon story happened right on our doorstep. It was more than just a story. We became part of the story in the same way you are affected when your neighbour’s house catches fire.
You join in to fight the blaze, and if there is loss of life you see the neighbour through the tough times. It’s an African thing to do. It’s called ubuntu in my mother tongue.