It is late Friday night, about an hour before midnight and I am on a shuttle from my evening shift at work in the waterfront. The shuttle is destined for Khayelitsha, where it will make door-to-door deliveries of all the employees.
Because of a debates and conversations, coupled with a virtually empty N2 going away from the city, we reach Khayelitsha rather quickly as per usual and start to deliver people as we normally do. Because I live on the southern most part of Khayelitsha, I resigned myself to the fact that I am always to second or third last person to get home out of about a dozen a long time ago. The shuttle normally starts in the northern sections of Bongweni, Khwezi, Thembani and Site-C, then Site-B, Khulani Park, Ekuphumleni, Graceland, Green Point, Litha park, and so forth before concluding with my area of Makhaza, Mandela Park, Kuyasa, Harare.
When we went past Green Point however, we saw something rather peculiar. A shack made of corrugated iron seemed to be glowing orange in the nearly-midnight dim light. It stood out like a saw thumb from others. It was as if something holly was taking place there. This was the kind of orange glow that one sees in television when a ball of fire is unleashed by a villain with supernatural powers or a when a metal is burned to such extremely high temperatures it melts and becomes liquid. The latter is nearer to the truth. We were all awe-struck by this smilingly miracle occurrence of biblical proportions. It only hit the six people left in the shuttle that this shack was burning and that the fire was still contained within it rather late after what seemed like an eternity. In reality, it could not have been more than 5 seconds. The driver of the shuttle noticed smote pushing through and slipping past the spaces were the corrugated iron grooves met that wooden rafters. As soon as we snapped out of this pseudo-holy experience, I exclaimed that we should do something, as there could be people inside there. A very quick but overwhelming consensus is reached immediately that we would attempt to do something.
This glowing shack was in the back yard of a property, with a 4 roomed RDP house on the front. The driver drove around the corner and stopped in front of the main house. I was the first to get out and run to try to open the gate. Two seconds later, I decided that it was locked and that I would jump over. I did, while failing to notice that the fence I jumped over was a barbed wire. After stumbling and falling, I got up and ran to the glowing house. again, I had failed to notice that I was running straight into a washing line. It hit me on the chin and I fell. By that time, I could hear screams inside the shack. I could also hear that some of my colleagues including the driver had also jumped over the fence and were knocking on the RDP house (main house) and shout “vukani kuyathsa!”, literally “wake up, it’s burning”. Our female colleagues had not jumped over and were running up and down the street knocking on different houses and screaming “kuyatsha!”.
I got up dazed and voiceless from the close-line I had subjected myself to. I ran towards the glowing shack once again. This time I reached it. I grabbed the door handle to open and go in. I scotched my hand terribly and for a second or two, nothing was more important than to spit on my hand and stop the intensively burning sensation. As soon as I heard the screams again however, it went away and adrenalin had taken over once more. I tried to push the door with my shoulder. It would not even move. So I started giving it the kind of kick you would give someone standing exactly in from of you on the chest or tummy area. I tried this about 4 times with very little success. As if I was playing the previously, I kicked the dorr harder and harder. Until on what must have been a fifth of sixth kick, the door swung wide open. I was not prepared by what would happen next.
As soon as the door opened, flames of fire came rushing towards me and gave me a slight kiss on the moustache eyebrows and eyelashes. My immediate and…..reaction was to run away and I could not resist that natural inclination. I step back about 3 or 4 meters away. By this time the voices had stopped. I tried to get close again and find an opening to get into the shack, but the fire was just too strong and seemed to be roaring. In retrospect, I gather that the fire was contained inside the shack and as soon as I opened the door, I fuelled it with midnight oxygen. The fire was now raging and in a matter of a minute, consumer the corrugated iron and wood structure.
To my and my colleagues amazen and bitter disappointment, the street was still deserted as no one had woken up. So we stood there defeated, emotional and most of us bloody from the cuts of the barbed wire when we jumped over. Yes, for a couple of minutes, we stood there with our hands on our waist, chests weezing from the actions, work uniform torn and tears on our eyes and we had just witnessed a gruesome death of more than one person.
Quickly enough, while there was still no one else there, one of us shouted in isiXhosa “let us get the hell out of here, as these neighbours may woke up and think we did this!”. For a split second, that seemed to come from far away and lamost inaudible. Soon enough however and in unison, our minds clicked and considered that suggestion a very plausible one indeed. We all tried to curb our emotions and got into a the shuttle and drove away to continue delivering. We called the police, fire and rescue and the ambulance in from the shuttle about five minutes after we drove away.
The next morning I woke up to the news on the radio that four people had perished in a shack fire in Green Point, Khayelitsha. All those screams came rushing back and I excused myself from the breakfast table to retire and shed a tear in the privacy of my room. I was born and bred in Site-B, Khayelitsha so witnessing shack fires is noting new. I must have seen literally over a thousand shacks burn down in a period of about 15 years. This includes the great fires that have wiped PJS, BM and the western sections of Oliver Park near Q-block, in Site-B.I also witnessed the great Christmas day fire of 1995 that destroyed hundreds of shacks leaving only one standing. The owner of that shacks was later accused of witchcraft, as residents failed to understand how come her shack, which was amongst those that burnt and not in the edge, was not. However, it was the first time that I was so near and so involved. The experience of not being there at the time and not being able to save anyone from imminent death stayed with me for weeks.
Now, about eight months down the line, I have seen over 50 more shacks burn down to the grown in Site-C, Site-B, TR, BM, Green Point, Town Two and eNkanini. None of them however, have affected me more than the one on that fateful day.
This story inspired by last week’s fire in Town Two where six family members perished after their home was gutted by fire. As much as I see progress with the provision of brick and cement houses, however small and of poor standard and workmanship, this should be a reminder to our government that the job to provide housing for the poor is far from over. It has just began. This painful story of so many family members succumbing to death in such tragic circumstances should go a long way to humble all of us, government, civil servants and normal folk that aluta continua. Millennium Development Goals are still a distant memory for many in our country.