Alex fire leaves scores destitute as they work on rebuilding

(Mashadi Kekana/M&G)

(Mashadi Kekana/M&G)

Residents living on 18th Avenue and London Road in Alexandra township started their morning on Friday covered in soot as they attempted to salvage what remains of their homes.

Approximately 500 shacks were reduced to ash on Thursday in what residents say began as an altercation involving someone living at the settlement.

Residents believe two men had a fight and one of them came back with a group of friends and set fire to the shack of the person he was fighting with in revenge.

A group of residents allegedly hunted down the men and inflicted serious injuries on one of them. He is reported to have succumbed to his injuries and died in hospital on Friday.

Police have opened a case of murder and have asked anyone with information to come forward.

Disaster relief organisation Gift of the Givers has been on site since Thursday evening. National events coordinator Emily Thomas told the Mail & Guardian the organisation started by finding shelter for mothers and children at a hall close by, providing them with food and blankets to tide them over until more donations came in.
Most of the mothers do not have diapers for their children or essential medications.

Gift of the Givers also gave shelter and food to a mother who gave birth yesterday at Masakhane Alexandra Clinic. When she was discharged, she returned to 18th Avenue with her newborn only to discover her home and possessions had been engulfed by the blaze. Thomas says they found her just sitting on the pavement, holding the baby to her chest.

The organisation has set up a distribution point at the scene of the fire where they have been giving destitute residents bread and soup.

“Right now, they [residents] are feeling so distressed because they don’t know where to start,” Thomas said.

The emotions of residents in the aftermath on Friday range from confusion, anger, sadness and hopelessness with a few residents saying they have resigned themselves to what has happened because they can’t do anything about it.

In the aftermath of the fire, men and women walked around assessing the damage and collecting sheets of corrugated iron for reuse. The only structures that remained are the few brick houses which mostly survived the blaze but were not left unscathed with shattered mirrors, burnt doors, missing roofs and blackened walls.

Toddlers cried as they clung to their mothers with slightly older children sitting on top of mounds of burnt clothes and on the pavement, holding onto blankets and a few clothing items that they managed to save.

Itumeleng Leoma, a resident, stood staring at the damage with her hands on her hips and her one-year-old strapped to her back and covered in a blanket that was once a pale blue but is now blackened. She shook her head as she remembered the destruction on Thursday.

Leoma was at work when she got a call saying a fire had broken out and was about to destroy her home.

“My heart started beating very fast,” Leoma said because her baby was at home with a relative. Leoma’s relative managed to get a few items out of the house as well as their passports but some of the items that they ran out with got lost in the melee of people trying to save their possessions.

Leoma, who is a Lesotho national, says she is consoling herself with just one thing.

“I’m just glad that my child is okay.”

A few residents gathered in a group as they ate their bread and soup. Even as they were surrounded by the wreckage, they still managed to find humour in the situation when they started talking about how they haven’t spotted a single rat since the fire broke out.

Dunking bits of bread in the soup for her toddler, Noluyolo Williams laughingly concurred, saying at least they were getting a break from the infamous Alex rats which always pester them.

“I had bought Christmas clothes for all my children and we were excited for December but now everything is gone. All the clinic cards, IDs, birth certificates, clothes. Everything. Now all I am left with are these dusty clothes I’m wearing,” Williams said.

Rachatsane Ranko waded through the heaps of burnt remains, trying to find something that could help as he started preparing to rebuild.

“My heart is broken. I don’t know what to do with myself,” Ranko murmured as he shut his eyes against the dust being carried by the wind.

Gauteng premier David Makhura and Community Safety MEC Sizakele Nkosi-Malobane arrived on the scene to address and update residents.

Nkosi-Malobane said the best solution, for now, is for the residents to rebuild their homes and that they would be assisted with the materials to do so. She emphasised that rebuilding needs to take place soon because keeping residents in temporary accommodation increases the risk of other people coming and building in their place which then creates another problem that is likely to end with violence.

Makhura told residents the City of Johannesburg and provincial government would help them “to rebuild immediately”.

Makhura announced that the department of home affairs would also be coming to the settlement to help those who lost their identification documents in the fire.

Mashadi Kekana

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