Tragedy was narrowly averted last week in Upper Darling Street when a 4-year-old boy locked himself in a room and set it alight.
The three-storey building, owned by the national Department of Public Works, situated at 104 Upper Darling Street, is home to 18 families.
On Wednesday November 8, a group of women, including the little boy’s mother, was sitting at the entrance of the staircase when they heard a loud cracking sound coming from the top floor.
One of the women kicked the door open in a bid to rescue the little boy, and flames escaped from a burning mattress.
The child was unharmed but the fire left five of the families with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
When CapeTowner visited the building, the third floor consisting of five entrances to rooms which didn’t have much left structurally even before the fire, windows and window panes, the residents’ cupboards, clothes and the roofing had all been reduced to ashes and rubble, and the wooden floors creaked.
Angela Martin, a resident for 18 years at the Upper Darling Street building, said after the fire she struggles to sleep at night. She said they already suffered from sewage smells and now have a building reeking of smoke.
She said she was in a deep sleep when she heard people shouting and at first thought a fight had broken out. “All I heard were people screaming. We are not safe here, the top floor is ready to give in and we were warned to walk softly on here. The investigator of the fire department said the building might collapse and we should not be here (on the top floor) “ said Ms Martin.
The five families who lost all their belongings in the fire now sleep in a minor hall on the property.
When asked how a lighter had been in the young boy’s reach, women started ranting about the lack of resources in the building. They say the electricity had been cut off in December last year and they have to use gas tanks for cooking and candles as a light source. “We are 18 families living here, we all use one tap and one bathroom,” said Ms Martin.
The women said they have been squatters for a very long time and some of them have been living in the building for over 30 years. Many of the inhabitants are elderly, there is a large number of kids, three disabled inhabitants and most of them are unemployed. They said they are fed up with their living conditions.
Jonathan Carelse, a resident for 19 years and a supporter of the Reclaim the City campaign, which advocates and lobbies for desegregation and affordable housing in the inner-city under civil rights NGO, Ndifuna Ukwazi, is saddened that he had lost everything in the fire. “The back room which was mine and my family’s had been destroyed, I have three kids and they are traumatised. Nobody really cares,” said Mr Carelse.
Sarita Pillay, political organiser for Ndifuna Ukwazi, said they have been a support system for the inhabitants of 104 Upper Darling Street as the inhabitants attend their advice assemblies every Tuesday.
“Ndifuna Ukwazi members provide support in various ways, including giving advice on the law, sharing the devastating news of the fire on social media and standing in solidarity with the tenants of 104 Upper Darling Street,” added Ms Pillay.
Theo Layne, spokesperson for the City of Cape Town’s Fire and Rescue Service, confirmed that a fire had been attended to in Upper Darling Street on Wednesday, November 8. “Three fire engines and a water tanker extinguished the fire at the three-storey building, no injuries were reported. The cause of the fire is being investigated,” said Mr Layne.
While CapeTowner could not get comment from the Department of Public Works in time for publication because their emailing system was down, an online GroundUp report on November 8 said that people living in the building used to pay rent to a Fred Slaber, who managed the property from 1987 to 1999, and to a John Neels, who managed it from 1999 to 2008.
Lesiba Kgwele, spokesperson for Minister of Public Works, Nkosinathi Nhleko, told GroundUp that the Department of Public Works entered into a lease agreement with Neels for the coffee shop premises. “Neels subsequently entered into sublease agreements with various parties. Neels failed to honour his lease agreement and was eventually evicted from the building on November 13 2010. However, when he vacated the property he failed to terminate the subleases. This resulted in the tenants becoming illegal occupants. This department had no business dealings nor connection with Slaber.”
Mr Kgwele added: “The building cannot be maintained while it is still illegally occupied. The department will issue eviction notices to all the current occupants and embark on rehabilitation of the building. Since the building is illegally occupied, the state could not pay for electricity usage.”
CapeTowner will publish further responses from the department when we receive it.