A week after the devastating fires which swept through Knysna, scores of families in its impoverished townships struggle to rebuild their lives. Nwabisa Makunga, Michael Kimberley and Karen van Rooyen visited the area.
In 1992, Seti Skosana left his home in the then Venda Bantustan looking for work. He found a job in Knysna, working for a giant construction company. In the poor White Location township, on a hill overlooking the town’s most exquisite views, Skosana, 57, settled his family. Over the past 25 years, he built his home, adding one room after another for his wife, Mercy, and seven children.
Last month, he bought a ton of bricks, and packed them neatly in his back yard as he planned to add one more room to the six-bedroom home.
On Wednesday last week, runaway fires swept through the town, burning more than 400 homes – at least 150 in Skosana’s neighbourhood.
Fanned by strong winds, a wave of flames jumped a neighbour’s home and landed on his.
That night with a hose in his hand, Skosana tried to douse the flames. But it was all in vain. The inferno wiped out everything but some scorched zinc sheets and the unused bricks packed in his garden.
“We never managed to save anything inside but I’m starting to rebuild,” he said.
Standing on the foundation of what was his bedroom and the salvaged zinc sheets already packed up, Skosana was adamant: “We will fix this.”
Down the road, surrounded by burnt forest, is the small concrete foundation of what was the popular BAC Apostolic church. It was razed along with two RDP homes. The church, the houses and the burnt shell of a taxi parked nearby all belonged to Wanda Xayimpi’s family.
Walking through the rubble, with the smell of smoke still lingering in the air, Xayimpi recalled that fateful Wednesday night when the shock of seeing flames come closer and closer paralysed him.
“I just stood there watching,” the taxi driver said.
“It came closer and I then ran inside and grabbed identity documents and the vehicle papers. I got nothing else out.”
With his siblings, Xayimpi escaped to their parents’ house a street away.
From there they all watched through the window as their homes, their father’s beloved church and the taxi they lived off went up in flames.
Xayimpi’s five-year-old daughter Lutho was sobbing.
Eager to rebuild their lives, Xayimpi understands, yet is frustrated that the government urged them to wait.
“They said this is too much for the municipality, they are waiting for help from outside.
“It won’t help for them to say they will just build us houses.
“We have lost goods, cars, everything. These taxis are our livelihood, but they have asked us to be patient,” Xayimpi said.
Neighbour Nolingene Doyile, 49, is also battling to remain patient.
At first glance, Doyile’s three-bedroom house is intact, but there is hardly space to move inside, with boxes, furniture and supplies everywhere.
Come nighttime, eight people must find room to lie down in the lounge and two usable bedrooms.
Many of them are neighbours whose homes burnt down while they were helping Doyile protect her home that night. “We feel each other’s pain,” she said. “They helped me pack up my things that night and by the time they got home, their houses had burnt.
“I cannot turn them away. We can all sleep together in this house. There is no other way we can survive.”
Since the fire, the house has had no water, sanitation or electricity.
Along with Doyile’s son’s shack behind the house, the fire burnt their only toilet and damaged electricity wiring.
During the chaos of that night, they tried to salvage what they could – mattresses and linen – and dragged them to the road.
But the wind blew sparks onto the road, where some clothes and linen caught fire.
Since then, the unemployed mother and her neighbours live on food donations from firms which delivered aid to the area.
“My son who lives nearby bought this [gas] stove for both of us and we take turns to use it. After I finish cooking, I go to give it to him and vice versa,” she said.
At a community meeting, she said, municipal officials had asked those affected to wait for next week when plans would be made to try to clear rubble before temporary structures were put up.
“Whatever happens, I hope they won’t put up plank structures,” she said.
“This is a place of fires. Just imagine what would happen when the next fire flares up and we are in a plank structure?”