Cape fire racism was not lekker

The Citizen (KZN) - - LETTERS - Jen­nie Rid­yard

On Fri­day, my sis­ter was in Her­manus with her old­est son when her hus­band, who was in Betty’s Bay with the younger chil­dren and his mother, phoned.

The wild­fire had flared up again and was mov­ing to­wards their house. The smoke was thick; they were strug­gling to breathe. No evac­u­a­tion or­der had come through yet, but it hardly mat­tered – my sis­ter had the fam­ily’s car. They promised they’d leave with the neigh­bours if in­structed, but for now they would res­cue im­por­tant doc­u­ments and wet the back of their house be­cause this was where the fire would hit first.

Good­byes were said, con­tact lost ... and then the blaze roared down faster than Usain Bolt. Her hus­band beat at the flames as they tore through the farm gar­den – their fam­ily busi­ness – only flee­ing when de­feat was in­evitable. The fam­ily raced across the road to the neigh­bour’s.

Sal­vaged pho­tos were whipped from their hands by the wind. Jew­ellery was aban­doned and pass­ports left to the flames. The fire jumped the road too. They were trapped. The chil­dren hid in the bath, ouma and the dog in the shower, while the able-bod­ied fought the fire sur­round­ing them.

Mirac­u­lously, the flames swept on with­out catch­ing in­side ei­ther house, though ev­ery­where else homes burned. There were no fire en­gines, no au­thor­i­ties, no­body but the lo­cals who hadn’t es­caped in time. An old lady wrapped in a wet blan­ket watched her cot­tage blaz­ing from a boul­der; peo­ple waited on rocks be­side the sea.

Here’s the im­age that trou­bles me most though: as the flames de­scended, a fire depart­ment wa­ter truck raced by, men hang­ing from its win­dows, thumbs up, yelling “lekker!” – pre­sum­ably be­cause “white” homes were burn­ing?

Later, a ve­hi­cle stopped and video footage was taken and the pho­tog­ra­pher asked if they were okay be­fore rush­ing off. But if a chap wear­ing an of­fi­cial jacket with a cam­era can get through, where was the help? My sis­ter, stuck in road­blocks in Klein­mond, saw five sta­tion­ary fire en­gines. Maybe they had big­ger fires to fight; maybe it was teatime; maybe so­cial me­dia is more im­por­tant.

Or maybe there is smoke in my eyes too. But these are peo­ple. They’re some­body’s peo­ple. This time they were my peo­ple. And none of it was lekker at all.

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