South Africa

After the fire

Imizamo Yethu blaze leaves family broken

Photo: Remains of the Liwane family's home after the fire at Imizamo Yethu, Cape Town. Photo: Aphiwe Ngalo.

In the space of two weeks, the Liwana family has seen two deaths, one of a relative in the Eastern Cape, then their six-month-year-old daughter who burned to death in their family home in Shooting Range, an area in the Imizamo Yethu informal settlement near Hout Bay last Monday morning.

A narrow, pothole-ridden road leads to a shanty town known as the Shooting Range. Houses made of corrugated metal, sheets of plastic, cardboard boxes and the remains of other homes enclose what was once the Liwana household, a hollow structure with four corrugated iron walls – the base for what will now be the new Liwana home.

A group of men are in the process of rebuilding what was once a home of five; among them is a man in a grey overall and boots two sizes too big.

The man in grey is Xolisa Liwana, the father of the six-month-old who lost her life in the fire that also claimed 10 other homes over a week ago.

Photo: Xolisa Liwane, father of the baby that died in the fire at Imizamo Yethu, Cape Town. Photo: Aphiwe Ngalo

He leads us to what is their temporary home, a two-roomed shack that a neighbour is sharing with them while they rebuild, where the child’s mother sits. Still reeling from her loss, she says: “I won’t be able to talk to you.”

Liwana says he can talk.

I was there when it happened, I can talk.”

In the space of two weeks, the Liwana family has seen two deaths, one of a relative in the Eastern Cape, then their six-month-old girl who burnt to death last Monday morning.

I had just come back from the funeral in the Eastern Cape. My uncle passed away. I was tired and just got into bed with two kids, my four-year-old boy and baby girl. I was woken up by my boy when I noticed there was a fire. I tried to open the door but I couldn’t.”

Liwana became overwhelmed by smoke. He and his son were pulled out the by neighbours but the help came too late for the little girl.

People really tried to help but it was too late, it was only after the fire fighter arrived that the fire was extinguished, but other people had already lost their homes,” says Liwana.

I don’t know what started the fire, I don’t drink or smoke so we can’t say it was a cigarette or maybe I had been neglectful because I wasn’t sober. I have had to repeat this to many officials. Maybe if I was a person who used alcohol and maybe if it happened at night, it would make more sense.”

The fire started around noon.

When the fire was put out, the fire fighters asked me who was in the house. I told them that my six-month-old daughter was in there, they said they could not smell any human remains. After a more thorough search they found my baby’s body.”

Photo: A baby bottle lies on the ground as one of the few remains from the fire at Imizamo Yethu, Cape Town that claimed the life of a six-month-old baby. Photo: Aphiwe Ngalo.

When asked about the mother’s whereabouts when the fire occurred, Liwana says she had gone to buy meat at a shop close to the informal settlement. She was alerted by neighbours over the phone and made her way home.

By the time she had arrived, the fire had ravaged everything including our daughter,” says Liwana.

We lost everything, my child only has the pyjamas he was wearing when the fire broke out, I only have the clothes I was wearing and my wife only has what she went to town in.”

I don’t know what we are going to sleep on when we go back, we have nothing, all we have are those four walls,” he says.

Platoon commander of the Hout Bay Fire Station, Charles Hendricks, says the station responded to the fire at noon and managed to get control of the fire very fast but they had to call for additional support from another station.

We are currently understaffed; this is one of the challenges we have. People are on leave, so at this present moment we don’t have enough hands on deck. We also have people resigning and retiring and people are not being replaced fast enough.”

Another challenge listed by the fire fighters is the limited number of fire hydrants in Imizamo Yethu.

The fire hydrants have low pressure up there,” says fire fighter Samsoedien Jenkins.

The hydrants at the station fill up the water tanker in five minutes while the four hydrants in Imizamo Yethu take 15 minutes.

Fires in the Hout Bay area are not a rare occurrence. According to the City of Cape Town, 27 informal and formal structural fire incidents have occurred in Imizamo Yethu.

The City of Cape Town’s Fire and Rescue Service spokesperson, Theo Layne, says to prevent fires “education and reblocking are ongoing measures undertaken by the city in an effort to educate and inform residents on the dangers of fires”.

Nofenitshala Tomtala, a pensioner who lives in the area, says her shack had burnt down three times.

I’m blessed because I managed to get a brick house after years of struggling. My heart breaks every time I hear about a fire, it breaks because I know how it feels to lose everything. That is why I always get out and help fight fires.”

Another pensioner, Lorraine Ndika believes that if the area was legally electrified the number of fires would decrease.

What we really need is electricity,” she says.

Overhead, a web of wires runs throughout the settlement. Out of desperation residents of Imizamo Yethu have created illegal connections to get electricity.

I know having safe electricity connections will decrease the number of fires,” Ndika adds.

While the Liwana family tries to rebuild, the Imizamo Yethu community has helped them where they can.

We only have a roof over our heads because people, who themselves don’t have much, have been generous. The shoes I am wearing, the clothes my kid is wearing, are all from the people around us. I couldn’t be more grateful.”

The family does not know when the funeral will be. Liwane says: “I am waiting for a call from the police for the DNA test so they can confirm the identity of the body.” And when the body is returned, they have no idea how they will afford to bury the baby.

Because it has been raining, I have not been getting the construction piece jobs I usually get, I don’t know what we will do. For the first time in my life, I feel hopeless.” DM


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