root - December 16, 2023

Reconciliation Day Horror: One injured, families rendered homeless

Peter Luhanga  

A devastating fire has obliterated 258 shacks and inflicted damage on seven formal housing structures, resulting in one adult sustaining injuries and leaving 702 individuals, including women and children, in dire need at the Thembeni informal settlement in Dunoon, situated north of Cape Town.

The fire erupted just before dawn on Reconciliation Day, Saturday, 16 December.

Gavin Yamile, a 56-year-old husband and father of two children employed in Killarney Gardens, was alerted about the devastating fire at the informal settlement while he was at his workplace.

Hastening back home, he discovered his two-bedroom shack reduced to charred debris, much like numerous other homes in the area.

Upon Iliso LaBantu arrival at the informal settlement on Saturday, fire victims had commenced clearing their plots. Lingering smoke emanated from smouldering wooden planks, while several residents had already commenced reconstruction, utilising charred zinc sheets that had been straightened.

Yamile said amidst the chaos, his wife successfully rescued her purse, which held her ID and bank cards. Additionally, she managed to move a wardrobe and a fridge to a safer location.

The densely populated Thembeni informal settlement is characterised by multi-storey shacks.

“The fire originated from a double-storey shack and proved challenging to extinguish,” said Yamile.

Novusile Maqutywa, a 63-year-old pensioner and community leader, said the clothes and slippers she wore during the interview were her sole possessions following the fire’s complete annihilation of her two-room shack.

Maqutywa noted the prevalence of double-storey structures throughout the informal settlement, some of which came into contact with illegally connected electricity wires and Eskom’s power lines.

She said the fire ignited shortly after 4 am, originating from a double-storey shack. However, when firefighters arrived, accessing the informal settlement posed difficulties due to the lack of access roads.

“Everything, including my ID, has been incinerated,” said  Maqutywa.

Another victim, 28-year-old mother Lulutho Sikrenya, lost all household belongings, including her ID. However, she found solace in the fact that her children had departed for the holidays to the rural Eastern Cape, taking with them the gifts she had prepared.

“My intended departure to the Eastern Cape for the holidays on 17 December is now impossible. Christmas and New Year celebrations won’t be happening,”  says Sikrenya. “I am overwhelmed and stressed. I can’t express how I feel…I don’t even know where to begin.”

Charlotte Powell, the City’s spokesperson for disaster risk management, confirmed the incident. As of the previous night, 17 December, further assessments and registrations of affected individuals revealed that the fire had ravaged 258 shacks.

Powell says the City’s disaster risk management had established a Joint Operations Centre on-site to coordinate its response to the fire. She added that Gift of the Givers was present to aid with humanitarian relief, and the City had informed SASSA, responsible for providing humanitarian assistance.

“Seven formal housing structures sustained damage, impacting 702 people. Disaster risk management officials will continue assessments and registrations today, Monday, 18 December,” Powell stated.

She also said various City departments were conducting ongoing assessments pertaining to damaged infrastructure and the removal of fire debris.

Councillor Carl Pophaim, Mayco Member for Human Settlements, told Iliso LaBantu that his directorate is conducting the final fire assessments and verifications at the scene in the Thembeni informal Settlement in Dunoon.

Pophaim said the National Department of Human Settlements has pledged support by providing funding for building materials once the necessary verifications are completed. 

He added, “The National Department of Human Settlements will procure and deliver the materials for reconstructing the structures for the verified fire victims, following their recently adopted approach of centralising all emergency housing responses in the country. The City is expediting the process within its capabilities.”

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