Editorial: From the embers of fire, stoke hope

On Thursday morning, sections of the Bank of Lisbon building in central Johannesburg were still ablaze. Firefighters, their bodies limp with exhaustion, their minds fresh with the knowledge of the deaths of three of their colleagues on Wednesday, continued to battle a fire that many say could have been avoided.

Speaking to reporters, firefighters said the derelict state of the building meant it would take another two days to extinguish the fire.

As neighbouring buildings were evacuated later on Thursday, smoke billowing out of the building was another sign of foreboding in a week of national upset.

That the fire was avoidable, that workers had warned the building was unsafe, appears perfectly congruent with our political reality. It’s not that we don’t know the answers to our problems — the answers are as profuse as they are diverse — but we lack the readiness to make them real. Instead, we are surrounded by fire.

The Bank of Lisbon fire was not the only fire to have sent Johannesburg’s emergency services scurrying on Wednesday. Scores of people in the Angelo informal settlement in Boksburg lost their homes when a fire destroyed 30 of them.


It is the likes of emergency services —the firemen and the paramedics —who bear the brunt for shortfalls in the public purse.

And it is replicated across the country.

The Mail & Guardian’s health unit, Bhekisisa, this week reported that the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) had found that almost 40% of Limpopo’s ambulances did not work; the province of 5.8-million people is reliant on just 233 ambulances.

The TAC reported an alleged hiring freeze in the health department, a shortage of operating theatres at the Pietersburg Provincial Hospital and mounting unpaid overtime for doctors.

In response to the report, the Limpopo health department handed over a document that exposes the number of vacant posts in the province. Only about half of the emergency medical services positions have been filled, leaving the province short of about 1500 emergency employees.

Training is inadequate and resources are limited. The scope of need is so vast that the delivery of basic health services is never adequately met.

Meanwhile, big business, including Gupta Inc, McKinsey and now seemingly Bain &Company, is fleecing South Africa and appears to begetting away with it. They are getting away with destroying the potential of a generation of South Africans, who are wasting away on street corners, jobless and hungry. They are getting away with hollowing out the ability of the state to meet the needs of its people.

But somehow, in the embers of a fire that kills the people we deploy to keep us safe, we must stoke hope. Three people this week ran into a fire to do their work and died. Three firefighters. One of them fell to his death. The city looking on.

This is why we cannot bear to go on without a plan. A plan to effectively punish corruption wherever it rears its head — in the public sector and in the private sector.

But we also cannot go on without a plan that ensures the future of South Africa is secured. 

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