Fires and storms hit Western Cape informal settlements hard

About 250 houses were destroyed during the fire in Khayamandi over the weekend. Photo by Mzi Velapi

As residents mop up the storm damage, they decried their living conditions that remain unchanged as promises made by government after previous destruction proved empty.

Storms have wrecked havoc over the past few days in Cape Town, Stellenbosch and Paarl in the Western Cape, leaving a trail of destruction and thousands homeless. The humanitarian aid organisation, Gift of the Givers, through a media statement said that they responded to fires that broke out in Nyanga on Friday evening, and in Khayamandi, Stellenbosch on Saturday that affected about 250 houses and left about 1,000 people homeless. Gift of the Givers also responded to a fire in Smartie Town informal settlement in Paarl under the Drakenstein Municipality and then on Sunday evening, as the South African Weather Services upgraded the storm warning from level 6 to level 9, the organisation was inundated by calls as communities around the city were battling gale force winds before rain bucketed down leading to flooding. The affected residents professed no faith they will receive any assistance from government. based on past experiences.

Khayamandi fires

“I do not think the government cares
as we still stay in shacks
and this is not the first time
we have been affected by the fires”

In Khayamandi, strong winds spread a fire that destroyed about 250 houses, leaving about 1,000 people homeless. “I could not save anything from the fire as it was raging with black smoke. We could not even try to extinguish the fires with buckets as we usually do because of the strong wind. I lost my wardrobe, couch, TV, fridge. I am unemployed and it will take quite a while for me to get back on my feet again,” said Zanda Tsholeka. The mother-of-three told Elitsha that she does not think that the government cares about them or their plight. “I do not think the government cares as we still stay in shacks and also I do not think they would have prevented the fire. This is not the first time we have been affected by the fires. We were victims of the 2013 fires and even then promises were made but never fulfilled,” she said.

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Another resident who has been staying in the area since 2000 told Elitsha that she has twice been victim of fires that tore through the informal settlement. “After the 2004 fire, they promised to build houses for us. Some people were moved to the temporary relocation area as they were saying they were going to build houses but that never happened and as a result some people occupied the land and built houses. Then in 2013, they promised houses for us again,” said Zoleka Phalaza. “As you can see, Khayamandi is growing but there are no housing opportunities for us. They keep making promises everytime there is fire. We always build our houses and when they burn down, they make promises and the cycle continues,” she said.

“Our informal housing department and community development department are assisting affected residents with the issuing of fire kits (to rebuild structures) and daily warm meals,” said Stellenbosch Municipality spokesperson, Stuart Grobbelaar.

Gale-force winds and floods in Nomzamo and Khayelitsha

In Khayelitsha, strong winds blew away shacks and displaced about thirty-five families in New Monwabisi Park, Khayelitsha over the weekend. Community leader, Lulamile Mshenxisi said: “The residents now have no place to stay, so we are considering sheltering them in our community hall.” He was doubtful that they would be able to rebuild their shacks as most residents there survive on government grants.

“It was night and
I was scared of being
injured by zincs which
flew around here”

Anele Petros, who works as a construction worker in Simon’s Town, said the wind damaged his new shack and ruined his plans of moving into it. “I woke up at about 2 a.m. and noticed that my new shack had gone with the wind,” he said. “I placed some of my belongings in the shack because I was planning to move into it next week because it was bigger than the one I’m currently staying in.” The wind damaged the old shack in which he was staying in as well, he said, blowing the roof off. “I struggled to find a place to sleep because it was night. Moreover, I was scared of being injured by zincs which flew around here,” he said. He has borrowed R1,500 from a mashonisa (loan shark) to buy building nails, poles and zincs (corrugated iron sheets} to rebuild the old shack.

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In Nomzamo township in Strand, salon and barbershop owner, Arlindo Shiveve was being assisted by his friends and family to put up the structure again after it was destroyed by the strong wind. “The wind destroyed everything inside the barbershop, from the mirrors to the chairs. Everything was destroyed,” said the Mozambican national.

Cape Town’s mayoral committee member for human settlements, Carl Pophaim said that full assessments of households in need are being done across the metro. The South African Social Security Agency (Sassa) remains the lead relief authority. “The city calls on national government to provide greater budget allocation and a simplified process for disaster relief as far as allowing the city to redirect the relief in a decentralised way. For the city to respond more effectively to the provision of flood relief, we need to get access to funding to assist verified victims of flooding with safe building kits, like we used to do, within 24 to 48 hours, when we managed relief provision. The current nationally and ministerially-led process does not work for most of our flood-affected residents,” Pophaim said.

Meanwhile, Gift of the Givers has made a call on government to “relook at legislation that allows its various departments to access and employ funds immediately a disaster strikes”. No response to questions sent to the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs on this matter were received before publication.

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