Fire victims desperate to rebuild their homes – and their lives

Firefighters from Lakeside fire station were first on the scene in St Patrick’s Avenue.

Residents had been scurrying around to save their possessions after a fire destroyed 103 informal homes, leaving 263 people displaced over the weekend.

The fire raged from late on Saturday September 18 until the early hours on Sunday September 19.

This fire came soon after community leaders addressed a petition to Sub-council 18 chairperson Shanen Rossouw in a desperate plea for the City to reinstate the provision of starter kits to victims of fires (“Community leaders urge City to reinstate fire kits”, Southern Mail, August 11).

Until about a year ago, the City stopped providing fire rebuilding kits to fire victims because funding for the material had been stopped by the national government, said ward councillor Gerry Gordon. “This leaves our most vulnerable even more destitute to an even further plight. Myself and the mayor were at Overcome Heights on Sunday and we requested for SASSA services to be activated.”

The blaze destroyed a number of informal homes and left several residents displaced at Overcome Heights.

Jermaine Carelse, spokesperson for the City’s Fire and Rescue Service said they had responded to the emergency call at 9.40pm on Saturday September 18, and that fire fighters from Lakeside fire station had been first on the scene in St Patrick’s Avenue.

Mr Carelse said there had been 12 fire trucks on the scene and that 50 firefighters had battled to contain the fire before it was eventually extinguished by 3am on Sunday. “The blaze destroyed a number of informal homes and left several residents displaced. No injuries or fatalities were reported,” he said.

Charlotte Powell from the City’s Disaster Management Unit added that Gift of the Givers and Living Hope were providing humanitarian assistance. “Various City services are on site to restore basic services as the blaze destroyed critical infrastructure including electricity poles, chemical toilets and water taps,” she said.

However, community leaders had been frantically trying to get the fire starter kits reinstated as many of the victims were out in the cold without shelter.

The community were left destitute after a blaze in Overcome Heights.

Overcome Heights community leader Fouzia Cassiem, said 103 houses had been destroyed.

“What must the poor people do and now? This was again a big fire. We need houses now, we are sick and tired of living like this.”

Community worker Karen Mentoor confirmed that hundreds of people had been displaced, some of whom had gone to sleep at a church in Capricorn. Many others, however, had remained at the informal settlement to salvage whatever material they could.

Ms Mentor said some of those who were displaced were helped by their employers but many had been left unemployed because of Covid.

“They can’t afford to buy material so it has been very difficult for them to rebuild. People are forced to reuse the burnt materials. They lost everything, from documents, clothes and appliances and we are asking for assistance to help them rebuild their lives.”

The community of Overcome Heights are scurrying to salvage their possessions after a big fire.

The community leaders who signed the petition calling for the reinstatement of the fire starter kits told Southern Mail that the City should be taking heed that this is a national disaster.

Ottery community leader Keith Blake said: “After a fire destroys almost every meagre possession of these poor people, we request the City get a feasible human rights written plan of action within hours of a fire that destroys the homes or hokkies of the poorest of the poor.”

Community leaders are urging the City to provide a plan of action to launch a full investigation into the issue of assistance to the fire victims.

Pastor Paul Phillips, a community leader who represents the South African Religious Forum, said the budget cuts had impacted the most vulnerable residents.

“The vulnerable group, backyard dwellers, squatter camp residents are without the necessary services when faced with disaster such as shack fires, no such emergency intervention such as the fire starter kit to assist to rebuild as soon as possible are provided.”

Mr Phillips said the lack of such a service left families “destitute, homeless, robbing persons of their self worth, dignity and above all their basic human right to be sheltered under adverse weather conditions”.

He said the frustrations of the fire victims caused conflict in the City, and violent protests “as we have last seen at Jim Se Bos and other settlements are unnecessary if this action (budget cut) can be corrected” (“Jim se Bos fire leaves hundreds homeless”, Southern Mail, June 30).

New Horizon community leader Abe Braaf, who has been assisting fire victims in Phumlani Village and Jim Se Bos after their shacks were destroyed earlier this year, said the City had assisted when Jim se Bos was devastated by fire.

“But we feel there should be more communication with the committee of the Informal settlement. Nothing is mentioned about replacement of ID and other documents for the fire victims, who are unemployed and stressed. We are calling on all ward councillors to use part of their annual allocation towards fire kits.”

When Southern Mail sent the petition to the City, Malusi Booi, mayoral committee member for human settlements, said each case was dealt with on its merits.

“Every instance of fire is assessed and a specific approach is developed as all instances will have unique circumstances. The City enables and facilitates soft relief, such as donations, site clearing, verification and assessments for assistance,” he said.

“As per what the City has been communicating, until recently, the City almost immediately and automatically provided relief kits to residents in informal settlements and some backyarders affected by fires, outside of a declared national disaster. This was subject to funding and in particular grant funding filtered down from the National Government. The National Government grants have been cut and this is impacting on some City operations.

“The City until recently was the only metro in South Africa to provide enhanced fire kits to fire-affected residents as an additional service, outside of formal declared disasters. It was paid with the national grant funding. Now there is no more money.

“Traditionally, we did so to enhance turnaround times and offer assistance where we could.

“The City remains committed to looking at all possible avenues to assist fire-affected residents. We call on the National Government not to reduce grant funding so that these relief kits may be provided again.”

How you can help

Anyone who wants to assist or donate to the fire victims can drop off goods at:

  • Living Hope, Drury Rd, Capricorn near iThemba Primary School and contact Avril Thomas on 082 465 9067.
  • Where Rainbows Meet, Vrygrond Avenue, Capricorn next to Vrygrond Library and contact Mymoena Scholtz on 073 261 8864.
  • Ukama Packing Solutions, Unit 3, The Village Capricorn Drive. Capricorn Business Park. Call 021 788 5182 or email info@ukama.co.za or or donate@ukama.co.za