Alexandra fire leaves hundreds displaced, Johannesburg
About 500 shacks have been affected by a fire that broke out in Alexandra, Johannesburg, on Thursday afternoon, 6 November 2018. An eyewitness said that the fire started after someone took revenge for an attack on Wednesday. They said that around 14h00 some friends of people who had been fighting on Wednesday came to take revenge and then apparently burnt one shack. Unfortunately, it affected all the shacks around the area. The fire was on the corner of London Road and 18th Avenue. No deaths have been reported. Residents were carrying buckets of water to battle the blaze. The eyewitness said when fire engines arrived there was no water.
City of Johannesburg Emergency Management Services spokesperson, Nana Radebe, told media they were struggling to fight the fire because there were not enough fire hydrants and that the water pressure was too weak. “We don’t have hydrants in this area … Some of the areas around here were factories, so the hydrants were here. But you’d find that they [residents] have built on top of the hydrants and the hydrants that are close by to the squatter camp have been used,” Radebe said. “You’d find from time to time when there’s no water, those hydrants are used as a water supply.”
Radebe said anyone who wanted to help could drop off food and clothes at the Alex and Sandton fire stations.
It was reported on 1 November that the City of Johannesburg has only 10 fire engines to service the city’s 31 fire stations, but it needed 29. A tender to supply more vehicles was halted shortly after the DA took over the municipality in 2017, owing to suspected corruption. Almost two years later, a new contract has not been awarded.
A man who was accused of starting a blaze which engulfed scores of shacks in Alexandra, Johannesburg, has died, Gauteng police said on Friday. Police spokesperson Captain Mavela Masondo said the man had died in hospital after he was allegedly assaulted by the community on Thursday. "We are now investigating a case of murder," Masondo said. Masondo earlier said, "We do not have evidence of an arson attack and we can't label it as such yet." Masondo also appealed to the community to not take the law into their own hands and urged all those who may have information about how the fire started to come forward.
Hundreds of people have been displaced and others have lost everything they had, except for the clothes on their backs. Some told journalists that they were homeless and had "nowhere else to go".
At the same time, questions about adequate fire fighting abilities have been raised, with Johannesburg Mayor Herman Mashaba blaming overpopulation in his city and surrounding areas and "stretching limited resources to cover more people and communities". "Government should help the city in dealing with undocumented foreign nationals and together, help us regulate proper structures in which people could live in," Mashaba said. The mayor assured residents that his priority was buying efficient fire engines because the shortage of the special vehicles was what Mashaba had conceded to as a crisis. He said however, he was glad that the fire had not claimed any lives.
"Over 20 fire engines are in the process of being procured. A tender is out but I cannot involve myself in its processes... but believe it should be concluded soon," Mashaba said. Mashaba added that he sympathised with those who lost their belongings and pledged "reasonable assistance" once he understood the nature of the challenge and a proper report had been tabled. He said that he would also be "writing a letter to the home affairs department and the Human Rights Commission to seek ways to deal with overpopulation decisively.
Some civic organisations were on site on Thursday to assist affected people.
A painting project aimed at preventing shack fires is underway in Setswetla informal settlement, in Alexandra, north of Johannesburg. This comes as hundreds of families have been displaced in another section of the township after a devastating fire swept through the area last week. It destroyed about 460 structures. Managing director of the Heart and Soul Foundation, Welcome Witbooi says, “The structures that you see in front of you are predominantly made of cardboard mostly and hardwood sheeting which is very light. And if a fire should break out in this community it would roughly burn 5 000 shacks.”
The Heart and Soul Foundation has partnered with the Cape-Town based Khusela Ikhaya project, translated from Xhosa it means ‘protect the home’. The project’s executive director, Ashley Stemmet, says Setswetla is Gauteng’s pilot project, where shacks are painted with a special fire retardant paint to slow the rate of burning and the speed at which township fires spread.
Witbooi says while government and aid organisations deal with the aftermath of last week’s fire in Alexandra a pro-active approach is needed in future. “Why should we lose life? Why can we not look at the term of ‘prevention is better than cure’. As South Africans we constantly learn this way and it’s sad. We constantly learn to put preventative measures in place after life has been lost instead of having preventative measures in place before hand,” says Welcome.
Stemmet says Setswetla will benefit more than just a face-lift. The time a shack takes to burn will also be extended from three minutes to 10, ensuring additional time to contain the blaze and minimise losses. “The Khusela Ikhaya project employs unemployed workers from the communities to apply the paint and paint homes, not only with the fire retardant coating, which is predominantly a white colour but then to add colour to that environment. It’s a very heart-warming story when unemployed people work together to better and at the same time protect their community,” says Stemmet.
Brian Mahlangu is a community leader in Setswetla, and says this community needs protection. “There’s no roads there is a high fire risk because the shacks are close, so we close the space for service delivery. In the case of emergency, even if there’s a fire it’s going to give us a problem because the fire brigade, it’s not easy to enter inside. And then we have to use buckets to try to fight the fire but it’s not easy because the water is no pressure. So you have to maybe wait for six or seven minutes for one bucket to be full. That’s why many shacks will be destroyed. If this shack can burn now, within a minute all shacks are down,” says Mahlangu.
Colin Ngobeni is one of 25 community members employed by the project and says when Setswetla burned in 2008 he lost everything. “Unfortunately that day I was not here so I just got a call and said ay, there is a big fire. Then everything burnt. You know, everything. Beds. All important documents, like ID books, bank cards, your certificates, birth certificates, school. First thing, eish I thought what if my niece got burned? What if my niece is dead? But fortunately the fire brigades came and fought the fire and extinguished it. For me that was a tough time,” says Ngobeni.
Devin Ingram is from Beyond Teambuilding, a corporate outreach partner facilitating social responsibility activities for companies and groups. He says empowerment of the community can only come from sustainable involvement. “We won’t be able to reach everywhere and that’s why we’re calling out for more people to come forward and volunteer their time and whatever else they can contribute to add some more permanent measures to improve these communities as opposed to the hit and run initiatives,” says Ingram.
He invited the public to join the #PaintITForward challenge on Wednesday, 12 December. All participants needed to bring is a paintbrush. Stemmet says he anticipates the Gauteng campaign to be as big a success as in other provinces.
Together, they hope shack fires can be stopped, and that Setswetla’s festive season is a safe one.
Source: ENCA, SABC and News24