On a mission to help

In the early hours of Sunday March 12, two young women living in a home known for its bright orange exterior began making and serving coffee to people who had lost everything in the Imizamo Yethu fire the day before.

It was a simple act, but one which Yonela Gaga and Naydia Booi felt the need to perform. Many fire victims had not had anything to eat for more than a day, and while their resources were meagre, they could at least offer something hot to drink.

The women quickly began to appreciate the number of people affected by the fire was far more than anyone could have anticipated. Their efforts were paying off, but they simply no longer had anything to give.

It was at that point that they turned to social media to appeal for food and drink. Within hours of their post on the Hout Bay Organised Facebook group, boxes of food, water and other essentials began arriving at what has now come to be known as “The Orange House” just off NR Mandela Street.

So, too, did a number Imizamo Yethu residents who had been inspired to do whatever they could for the relief effort. A week later, the number of volunteers operating from The Orange House had swelled to 24.

Among these is 33-year-old Mbuyi Ndude, who has assumed all cooking responsibilities, preparing as many as five meals a day for the fire victims – of which she herself is one.

A donation of black T-shirts from the Rotary Club to the loosely formed group engendered the “Black T-shirt Team”, and so the name has spread around Hout Bay and social media.

Up until Wednesday last week, March 16, the Black T-shirt Team had acted in a type of “middle man” capacity, taking essentials up to the most affected victims in Dontse-Yakhe as they sought to rebuild their lives. At this point in proceedings, it was understood that people would be able to rebuild their shacks immediately.

That changed on the evening of Tuesday March 14, when national government, the City, community leaders, the IY Movement and political parties reached an agreement that the area would be “superblocked” and residents temporarily relocated while access roads and services were established.

“Suddenly we were no longer receiving as many donations and people were told that if they wanted aid they would have to register and go to the sports fields,” Ms Booi said.

“One of our team was told that the City was paying millions of rands to hire the tents on the field so that people could be accommodated, but we don’t understand that. It is not healthy for so many people to be living in the same tent.”

She said some team members had also been blocked from taking goods up to people rebuilding their shacks.

“What it seems like to us is that the politicians are enforcing their will on the people, when people are in a state of desperation. One of the law enforcement officers even threatened to bring in soldiers if people refuse to be temporarily relocated. Now it’s all a political game.”

Ms Booi said all the Black T-shirt Team wanted to do was help those in need, without any agenda.

“There has always been a lot of politics at play in IY, but we don’t want any part of that. I think in this respect, the youth are taking the lead since the fire. We’ve had 16-year-olds joining us to take goods up to the affected people.

“We thought we would be doing this for a week, but it has become much bigger than that, so we will carry on as long as people need us. Fortunately we are still receiving some donations from the community, which has been very kind to us. We just want to help where help is needed.”

On Sunday March 19, the Black T-shirt Team was dealt a further blow. According to Ms Booi, they were paid a visit by a City official who told them that they may no longer prepare cooked food as this could present a health hazard.

“We were told that a (health) inspector would be coming to see us. That hasn’t happened yet, so in the meantime we are making sandwiches for the people. Disaster management is trying to get everyone onto the sports field to receive relief packages, but we are going to try to do what we can.”

Team member Deborah Mkhaphuza said officials did not seem to be taking into account that many people did not want to be accommodated in the marquee tents.

“One of the ladies we’ve been helping has a six-month-old baby. The mother and her baby are already very sick. Now they want to put them in a confined space with strangers, who also could be sick. No one wants to live in the same space with people they don’t know. In fact, we have been told that people are already fighting over space in the tents.”

Ms Booi said the team had raised this issue with officials, but “we never get any answers”.

While the Black T-shirt Team has no formal structure in place, they have settled on a hard and fast rule that they will not accept cash donations under any circumstances.

“I have worked at a few charity organisations, and so often I have found that money goes missing. Then factions emerge within the organisation, and nothing gets done. That is the last thing we want,” Ms Booi said.

JP Smith, mayoral committee member for safety and security and social services, said the City’s environmental health department had been working with disaster risk management officials to ensure the safety of all those residents being accommodated and receiving aid in the wake of the Imizamo Yethu fire.

“An environmental health practitioner is on site daily to inspect the living quarters, ablutions, water provision, and the main kitchen at the fire station where meals are being prepared for the beneficiaries. While the City encourages donations from the public, having food distributed from a central point makes it easier to determine food safety and also enables traceability in the event of any health impact,” he said.

“The City continues to encourage the assistance of non-governmental agencies, but requests that such assistance be appropriately channelled to ensure the health and well-being of those affected.”

Ms Gaga can be reached at 079 577 6423 and Ms Booi on 074 815 3702.