Fire victims in limbo

Victims of the recent Hangberg fire that left two people dead say they are facing an “uncertain future”.

They also feel their plight has been largely ignored by the City of Cape Town as it focused its fire-relief efforts in Khayelitsha and Philippi, where 4 000 and 1 300 people were displaced respectively.

Currently some 30 fire victims, including children, are being housed at the Hangberg civic centre after their homes were razed in the early hours of Friday October 19.

Daniel Williams, 46, and 15-year-old Veron Fredericks lost their lives in the fire (“Snuffed out by flames,” Sentinel, October 26).

While some fire victims are staying with family, those at the civic centre have called on the City to level the ground on which their homes were located. The fire happened in the Hangberg Improvement Development Area (HiDA).

The City provided building materials for 3m x 3m shacks, but most people are wanting the area to be stabilised before rebuilding. Some have erected structures but are not living in them.

“They’ve only put them up so that nobody moves onto their plots,” one man said, with another fire victim, Lorraine Mtolo, bemoaning the fact that people were constantly asking her whether she would still be using her plot.

Being accommodated at the civic centre was difficult, the residents said.

“There is no privacy here. There are always other people around, which makes it difficult,” said Dominique Richter.

Valencia Jonkers said she had been living in her shack for more than 20 years, and now that she had lost everything in the fire, the onus was on the City to look after her.

“For years, the City has promised us that it will go ahead with the HiDA formal housing project. But it’s just lies, lies and lies. Now the time has come for the government to build proper houses for us.”

Roscoe Jacobs, of the Hangberg Civic Association, said that during a 2007 by-election in Hout Bay, Premier Helen Zille, who was Cape Town’s mayor at the time, had pledged to expedite the housing project, yet nothing had been done.

“Whoever is in power needs to stop talking and start implementing. In 2007, Zille said Hangberg reminded her of what Clifton looked like 20 years before, but now 11 years later, we are worse off than we’ve ever been. The government is failing to deliver on its promises. Even the agreements (on housing) detailed in the Hangberg Peace Accord have not been forthcoming,” Mr Jacobs said.

The Peace Accord is a deal struck with the City in the wake of the 2010 riots. Made an order of the high court in October 2011, it holds the City to making key improvements in Hangberg over time.

Jennelee Davids, a mother of three children, said living at the civic centre had made her family’s routines “deurmekaar”.

“There’s no TV here, so the kids get bored quickly. My kids are used to going to bed early, but now they can’t because there are always people talking. It’s exam time now, but where must they go to study so they can have some quiet? Maybe they (the City) can look at making the Hangberg library available after hours so the kids can study.”

Prominent community member Michelle Yon said she had seen the use of temporary sandbag houses (with sandbags piled up to make walls) in Ocean View and suggested the City use those to temporarily house fire victims.

Ms Jonkers said it “hurt” when she saw the City was focusing its fire-relief efforts on Khayelitsha and Philippi because it seemed it did not care about Hangberg.

Mr Jacobs accused the City of focusing on Khayelitsha and Philippi because it wanted “to make inroads in the African community” ahead of next year’s general election.

“The DA knows it will get the vote in Hout Bay, so that’s why they’re helping people in these areas,” he said.

Ms Yon echoed those sentiments.

“When it comes to looking after the indigenous people of the Western Cape, we are always overlooked. Yet when something happens to people who’ve come from the Eastern Cape, they move quickly to help them. Now there’s tension in our community because of a lack of good governance.”

Ms Mtolo said most support for the fire victims had come from members of the Hout Bay community.

“We want to thank the women who’ve been bringing us food, and even the container shops have been providing us with bread. We almost have been totally reliant on the community. If they didn’t help us, I don’t know what we would have done.”

The City’s media manager, Luthando Tyhalibongo, said officials had inspected the scene of the fire last Friday and found retaining walls would be needed to stabilise unstable embankments if the site was to be terraced for safe resettlement.

“However, this would require a formal design and construction process which cannot be limited and isolated to the fire-affected area only,” he said.

To avoid disturbing structures outside the fire zone, he said, the City recommended the fire victims relocate to empty spaces in and around the HiDA informal settlement or rebuild on their original plots if safe to do so.

“It’s important to note that the slope is and was always unstable, hence the area is not part of the formal housing development,” he said.

The City’s disaster risk management spokeswoman Charlotte Powell said the disaster risk management centre was “impartial” and coordinated relief efforts to all communities affected by disasters or major incidences. She said fire victims could stay in the community hall until it was safe for them to return.