Ravaged by flames

Thousands of shacks were destroyed by last weekends fires.

The City of Cape Town has notified the South African National Disaster Management Centre (NDMC) of its intention to declare Imizamo Yethu a local disaster area in the wake of the devastating fires that claimed the lives of four people and left between 10 000 and 15 000 destitute.

That is according to Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs Department spokesperson Legadima Leso in response to queries by the Sentinel this week, who emphasised that even in the event of a state of disaster being declared, it would not guarantee national funding.

On Tuesday March 14, Human Settlements Minister Lindiwe Sisulu, who was in Hout Bay, was quoted as saying it was the last time the national Human Settlements department would be coming to deal with a disaster in Hout Bay, and the next time she visited it was hoped it would be to hand over houses.

The fire destroyed thousands of homes and killed four residents, three of whom were a family identified as Siyabonga, 34, Nomaroma, 28, and their child Ayabulela Ngceza, 2. Since the weekend, people both in and beyond Hout Bay have taken to social media asking why the South African National Defence Force has not deployed troops to assist in clean-up and rebuilding operations in the settlement following the fire, or why additional aid has not come from national government.

Late on Wednesday, Mr Leso told the Sentinel a local state of disaster was declared when existing legislation in terms of the Disaster Management Act and contingency arrangements did not adequately provide for the municipality to deal effectively with the disaster or if other special circumstances warrant the declaration of a local of disaster.

“The municipality must exhaust the available resources within its capacity to deal with the threatening situation, including resources within relevant organs of state before considering to declare a state of local disaster,” he said in a written statement.

He said the responsibility to deal with a disastrous event when it occurred was vested in the municipality, irrespective of whether a local state of disaster has been declared.

“While the NDMC has received notification from the Municipal Disaster Management Centre (City), the NDMC has not yet received any of the official assessment reports from the Municipal Disaster Management Centre or Provincial Disaster Management Centre to consider the appropriate classification of the Imizamo Yethu informal settlement fire.”

He added it “must be noted” that the declaration of a state of disaster was not a requirement to enable a sphere of government to manage and co-ordinate a disaster, or for one sphere to assist another.

“Additionally, declaration does not guarantee national funding in that the declaration process enables a municipality to invoke extraordinary measures to deal with a disaster.”

As the relief efforts continued this week, with donations of food, water and other essentials pouring in to drop-off points around Hout Bay and corporate monies raised already amounting to several million rand, the City was hoping the disaster area declaration would be gazetted as soon as possible.

Mayoral Committee Member for Safety and Security and Social Services, JP Smith, confirmed the City had alerted provincial and national disaster management centres to inform them of the City’s intention to declare fire-affected portions of Imizamo Yethu a local disaster area.
“The National Disaster Management Centre has acknowledged receipt of the notification and has asked the Provincial Disaster Management Centre to assist with the required assessment. The City awaits further feedback,” he said.

Ms Sisulu said earlier this week that after spending the afternoon in Imizamo Yethu, it was clear “we have to find a permanent solution to this annual disaster”.

“Our government programmes and different subsidies must be used to address the needs of the people. Developing permanent sustainable human settlements in this land and other relevant land in the City must be considered as a solution. The City must also manage the growth of informal settlements in the area by planning for urbanisation and inflow of young people,” she said.

Ms Sisulu was in town after a massive about-turn saw national, provincial and local government, members of the IY Movement and political parties agreeing to an initial proposal by the City to “superblock” the affected area so that fire breaks and new service roads could be established. The backtrack on Tuesday followed a meeting on Sunday March 12 in which a decision was taken that affected residents could begin rebuilding their shacks immediately.

“The challenge now is to convince affected families and victims. We have the buy-in from the leadership, our goal is one, but there will be difficulties in convincing everyone to be relocated for two months or more,” community leader Kenny Tokwe said.

The enormity of this challenge was plain to see. Despite this agreement, residents continued to rebuild their shacks at Dontse-Yakhe, indicating there was a long road ahead for the authorities.

Ntomboxolo Makoba-Somdaka, spokesperson for Western Cape Human Settlements MEC Bonginkosi Madikizela, said one of the issues that would be taken into account in creating additional space was that 65 percent of residents living in the area were “non-qualifiers”.

“By non-qualifiers we mean foreigners who could not receive a housing subsidy as well as South Africans who did not qualify for a housing subsidy because they earn too much. This would free up land for the establishment of the new services.

“Because people know they will not qualify, they will be very reluctant to give up their areas, so that is a challenge we will be facing going forward,” she said.

Ms Makoba-Somdaka said clearing the site could take between two and three weeks, but at this stage it was not possible to give time frames on how long residents would have to be temporarily relocated.

It is estimated that the provision of building kits and the redesign and restructuring of the area would cost close to R100 million.

As efforts to convince residents to move began in earnest on Wednesday, numerous complaints were received of Imizamo Yethu residents not affected by the fire registering for relief aid.

As she set about the Herculean task of rebuilding her shack this week, Dontse-Yakhe resident Agnes Mbangi said she was aware of a number of unaffected residents seeking food parcels and other donated items.

“They are very greedy. Actually I would say what they are doing is cruel. We have lost everything, and these people from other parts of Mandela Park are trying to take things we need away from us,” she said.

Mr Quintas said he had been made aware of these “opportunistic” elements.

“Unfortunately there will always be opportunists in times of crisis. I have it on good authority that some groups in the community have been assisting residents unaffected by the fire to apply for relief,” he said.

“Last year the City did a detailed audit of the area and we are basing our relief efforts on that audit, to see who is a legitimate resident of that area. There may have been more people who have moved into the area between October last year and March this year, but in this case all we can do is place faith in the community that they will be honest.”

For many, however, the desperation of their situation compelled them to gather sheet metal and begin to rebuild their homes immediately. Amid the ash and ruins of Dontse-Yakhe, the sheer scale of the disaster was plain to see.

According to the latest statistics, 4 500 shacks were razed, but to those on the ground this number appeared to be more.

Earlier this week, Mr Neilson said residents had been offered temporary relief accommodation in community halls in the area and temporary marquees had also been erected at the request of the affected residents to house their belongings.

Since the fire, many Hout Bay residents have questioned why it took so long for fire trucks and fire-fighting helicopters to arrive on the scene. There were also complaints that even when the fire trucks did arrive, there was no water available.

“Even at 3am on Saturday there were fire trucks on the scene, but they struggled to reach the fire because of people and cars blocking the roads in attempt to flee or gather their belongings before the fire reached them. There were also illegal structures blocking the path,” Mr Quintas said.

“We have found that the water mains were also tampered with, as people in panic tried to divert the water to their own homes to put out the fires. We also found that the fire hoses were tampered with as people tried to gather water to put out the fire.”

In respect of the fire-fighting helicopters, which arrived mid-morning on Saturday, Mr Quintas said the pilots had agreed “reluctantly” to go the scene.

“They were very reluctant to drop water on an area where there were so many civilians. I don’t think people realise this but that much water falling from the sky will hit a person like a ton of bricks. Potentially it could kill them, so understandably the pilots didn’t want to hurt anyone.”

During the Sentinel’s site visit this week, both Ms Mbangi and fellow resident Sindeke Nquma claimed that in spite of the heaviest flames occurring in the upper parts of Dontse-Yakhe, the helicopters initially focused their efforts on the area divided by a fence from the affluent suburb of Hughenden.

“There were big flames elsewhere, but the first place the helicopters came was the area closest to the white area. We are very angry about that,” Ms Mbangi said.

Mr Quintas said he had been made aware of this grievance. “When the helicopters are deployed, protocol dictates that they focus on areas that have high levels of vegetation. This area had more vegetation than other parts of Dontse-Yakhe. It had nothing to do with white minority capital getting preferential treatment.”