Homes ready for fire victims at last
Months of hard work pay off for Gift of the Givers as they house some of Khayelitsha’s homeless
ON THE first day of this year a fire roared through Khayelitsha, destroying everything in its path, and leaving 4 000 people homeless.
Nearly a year on, most of those families from BM section have found new homes and are back on their feet – but not without a struggle.
Thembisile Bizo lost his spaza shop in the blaze, which destroyed his means of providing for his three children. In January, Bizo told the Weekend Argus: “I don’t know what I am going to do. That shop was my bread and butter.”
Almost a year later, Bizo’s shop is running again but it was a very difficult year, he said.
“I couldn't afford to pay my bills. Or have enough food to feed my children.”
After some R10 000 was spent, Bizo’s shop is starting to bring in enough money to pay off some of his debt and feed his children, he said.
That day the flames took five lives: Luyanda Otto Ngcobetshana, 35, Nkosiyabo Lako, 29, Zukile Magada, Sivuyile Gqodo and Lungelo Krexe, 25. Lako’s older sister, Winnie Mbotshana, said it has been a hard year without him.
“We are still thinking about it,” Mbotshana said. “One day he was there and the next he was burnt to ashes.”
The fire apparently started when a drunk man fell asleep while trying to cook a late night snack.
Although a criminal investigation was opened, no one was arrested.
One fire victim, Irene Nomala, was on holiday in Queenstown when she got the heartbreaking call from her husband, telling her everything was gone, and that the couple, their son and their grandson were homeless.
“No house, no clothes – I had nothing,” she said. “It’s so hard because we have no money.”
After the fire, the family moved in with a cousin of Nomala’s, squeezing into an already crowded place where they spent the following three months.
“This one,” she said pointing to her adult son, “had to sleep on the dining room floor.”
In March Nomala got a call telling her the key to her new home, donated by Gift of the Givers, was ready.
Gift of the Givers built and furnished 103 homes for the victims and their families on nearby land donated by the city. The city also built a further 100 new homes.
“I had no idea when I would get a new home,” Nomala said. “They phoned me and told me that day and then I moved in.”
But she was one of the lucky ones who had a family to turn to in their hour of need.
Thobie Longo, who lost his home in the fire, lived in the OR Tambo Community Hall for five months along with hun- dreds of other people.
“There is no privacy at this place,” Longo said.
“If you are lucky you got a mattress, but some had to sleep on the floor with a blanket. I didn’t like it but I didn’t have a choice.”
Longo was on his way to work when the fire started.
“It was just a jumble – you couldn’t point to where my house was,” he said.
He was so busy sorting out clothing and shelter for his family in the aftermath of the disaster that he stayed away from work, which resulted in him being fired.
In May Longo got a new home from Gift of the Givers, who employed him during its building, but said he was struggling to secure permanent employment.
Another person who lost everything in the fire, Lion Makunzi, had to send his wife and children to stay with family in the Eastern Cape while he continued working in Cape Town. And he has not seen them since.
Gawa Sayed, project manager at Gift of the Givers, said her team had worked day and night to get a roof over the heads of the affected families, but it took time to build proper homes.
“I felt bad going home and lying in my comfortable bed,” she recalled.
“What about the old lady who has to sleep on the floor in the hall?”
But she adds that, sad as it is, dealing with shack fires is a norm for people forced to live this way.
JP Smith, mayoral member for safety and security, said they had run an average of two fire safety awareness sessions per day this year, and had tried to teach communities how to prevent these catastrophic fires as well as what to do when a blaze occured.
However, fires continue to occur.
The city, he said, had invested R290 million this year in 20 new fire engines, five new fire stations, and almost doubled the staff from 480 to 900.
Despite this progress, Fire and Rescue spokesman Theo Layne said they still struggled with people building near fire hydrants and blocking access routes.
“The problem is policing because people will literally put up shacks overnight, reblocking areas,” he said.
“The sad part is that the city can’t prevent fires, we can only put them out,” Smith said.
DEVASTATED: Fire victim Irene Nomala in her new home. She was on holiday in Queenstown when she got the heartbreaking call from her husband, telling her that everything she owned was gone, and that the couple, their son and their grandson, were homeless.
SAFE HAVEN: Thobile Longo, who lost his home in the fire, lost his job after staying away from work. He says he got a new home, but is still struggling to find work.
HOME TURF: Families outside the houses built for them by Gift of the Givers after losing their homes in the New Year’s Day fire at the start of 2013.
NEW HOPE: Gift of the Givers built and furnished 103 homes for the victims and their families on nearby land donated by the city. The city built a further 100 homes.