President Jacob Zuma and Western Cape premier Helen Zille put on a united front yesterday when faced with one of South Africa’s worst-ever natural disasters.
The pair, both under pressure – with Zuma facing severe criticism over the leaked Gupta e-mails and Zille in trouble for tweets about colonialism – chatted while surveying the devastation wreaked by last week’s Garden Route fires.
Zuma and Zille made an unlikely pair as they visited Knysna Heights and White Location, talking to residents and surveying burnt homes.
But both received a mixed reaction, with residents in White Location heard saying “tsek Zille”, while others said they did not appreciate the national government’s offer of temporary homes.
The temporary homes were mentioned by Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa while on site at White Location.
She spoke enthusiastically about the temporary homes, but the residents did not look convinced.
“The structure is a fire-resistant structure,” Molewa said. “It is a biomass technology.
“We have done the tests in Stellenbosch [and] when you burn that house, the structure doesn’t burn and the house is left standing.
“This is a structure that we have introduced in Tshwane.”
Molewa said the structures would, at a later stage, be made permanent. To make them permanent, concrete structures would be built over the temporary home.
“We are ready with 200 structures already,” she said.
“Even though we are not putting them up today, financially we are more than ready to start.”
Molewa said more geo-technical studies were still needed to ensure the soil in the area was conducive for the buildings.
In the meantime, temporary structures that were fire-resistant would be erected.
Zuma, who stood side by side with Zille, said: “The premier, Helen Zille, and I are both here to show support after the devastating disaster.
“We understand that you are probably in a lot of pain after losing your home.
“We saw that we couldn’t not come here to cry with you.
“As government, we will do all that we can to work together and address some of the problems that you might be facing as residents.”
Zuma said Cooperative Governance Minister Desmond van Rooyen would ensure that relief was brought to residents.
While the residents welcomed the visit, they expressed dissatisfaction with both Zille and Zuma, saying they had failed to communicate a clear plan to get them out of their neighbours’ houses, where they had been forced to stay after the fire devoured their homes. White Location resident Bulelwa Didishi, 43, said she was worried as there was no mention of an immediate plan to provide them with houses.
“I lost my shack last week in the fire but that wasn’t the first time that houses burnt,” she said.
“We appreciate that the president is here today and he has spoken about temporary structures, but they are all not clear as to what we will do with regards to when the temporary structures will be put in place.”
Didishi said she was temporarily living in a friend’s shack, where more than 10 people, excluding children, had been crammed together after the fires ravaged the area.
Before visiting White Location, Zuma and Zille stopped in Knysna Heights, speaking to Peter Edgar, 41, who said he had lost his home but was thankful his family was safe.
Edgar said he was glad the president had been to Knysna. “It makes Knysna feel like we are part of South Africa.”
After White Location, Zuma made his way to Plettenberg Bay to attend the funeral of fallen firefighter Bradley Richards.
There, he received a less than enthusiastic response.
Members of the congregation were seen shaking their heads or rolling their eyes as Zuma gave his condolences.
Zuma said he hoped the community was comforted by the outpouring of support in the wake of a “national crisis”.
“This disaster has been a shock to all of us in the country,” he said. “I am here with several ministers. “We came from the national government to express our sympathy and our shock, and our willingness to be with you in dealing with problems.”
Before embarking on his tour of Knysna and Plettenberg Bay, Zuma was embraced warmly by those waiting to see him at the Knysna municipal offices.
A group of about 40 ANC members, mostly women clad in ANC regalia, cheered as they saw the president and sang “we love you Zuma, we love you”. 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?”