14th Jul 2020 11:36:27 AM

The Charities | The Children | Dorah Mokoena | Health | Schools / Training | Community / Diaries | Regional Reports | UMashesha
Gauteng Schools
Science for the Blind
JSB Music MasterClass
Classroom Assistant Training
Prosthetics Course
Fire-Fighting Course
A School for the Blind
School's Guide
Jo'burg School for the Blind
Safety Courses
Tsepho's Project
School Addresses
St Johns Ambulance
Children of Fire Children of Fire Working with the South African Police Service (SAPS)

Children of Fire focuses on the poorest of the poor; the people living in areas most at risk. But we have decided that a policeman or policewoman will now be invited to be a member of every first aid training course that we run with St John Ambulance. We believe that this initiative should be adopted nationally and funded by Government.

The clear need for first aid skills is that the SAPS often arrives earliest at the scene of an accident or a crime, but South Africa's Police Act 1995 and internal standing orders and regulations that date back to 1913, currently discourages police officers from even transporting an injured person. Every minute wasted can be the difference between life and death. Children of Fire believes that by offering first aid training to the SAPS in Alex, lives will be saved.

As well as passing on those skills, we also believe that the policeman or policewoman studying alongside people from the surrounding area is vital for creating safer communities. One can get to know someone quite well over several days of intense training together.

Then, when "Mpho" or "Moses" phones the emergency services to report a crime or an accident, she or he are already known for their reliability and integrity. This theory already works in practice in the Joe Slovo squatter camp in Coronation/Crosby, because First Aider Collen Modau is well known to the emergency services and they never have any doubt about the urgency of responding to a call from him.

Charlie Ngale Ranthakgoa is the second member of Alex SAPS that we are training. Dinah Matlapeng was the first and Edward Dikgale will probably be the third.

Dinah Matlapeng has been a credit not just to the Police Service but the whole community with her enthusiasm for helping, since she was trained by us in July 2001. She makes a habit of ringing Children of Fire around 2 a.m when a fire is blazing away, to make sure we are aware of the problem, though usually we don't need to step in with on-the-ground help until daylight.

We follow up on the injured and the dead, the people left without housing or possessions. If we are assured that Disaster Management is already on the ground and active, we step aside. The Red Cross is often there to help with blankets. And a variety of groups including the Rhema Church can some-times help with short-term accommodation and sometimes even with food. But the quality of help is not consistent and there are some glaring gaps.

Recently 140 people looked like they would spend a night out in the cold, because the system wasn't working. Only by the continued endeavours of Dinah and her station commissioner, Director Mothibe, did we eventually ensure all the people affected had shelter some 16 hours after the fire in which they had lost everything.

Children of Fire cannot replace everyone's lost possessions but if the big fires are not too close together, we have appreciated the help of nearby large companies in Sandton, particularly African Merchant Bank and Investec, where the ordinary employees have stepped in to help with clothes and other donations of household items.

A Children of Fire field volunteer goes out and collects the names of people often while they are still walking among the ashes. That way we try to ensure that only the people who have actually suffered loss, get donations. We often also publish the names of those we have helped on the website, providing maximum transparency and accountability on every occasion.

Causes of Fires

One recent Alex fire started when a man had a nervous breakdown. His relatives sought help from the emergency services and eventually managed to get him admitted to an ordinary hospital. But the man discharged himself and went back to the shack. Because of his mental state, he showed great intolerance for the natural noise of children and started lighting pieces of paper and throwing them all around him. His relatives got the paper, the stove, the matches away from him. The man went out and bought a candle and matches and started again. This was repeated several times, with the relatives not knowing what to do. Eventually the man locked himself in the shack and set it alight.

Five children were injured alongside him and over the following days, three of them died too; two others remain in hospital with terrible injuries..

There needs to be a clear understanding of how to help someone having a breakdown and to ensure that they are not a danger to the surrounding community.

While the fire was blazing, the fire brigade came swiftly. They could not put the fire out quickly though because a brass component had been stolen from the nearest fire hydrant. Without that brass ring, a fire hose could not be attached. EVERY SECOND counts in fighting a fire. To run down the street hoping to find the next fire hydrant ... or the next one... have not been tampered with, is not acceptable. As the fire blazes, the firefighters are still joining hoses together from the distant hydrant. And children are horrifically injured.

The brass hose coupling that is stolen to sell for a few rands but that costs R182 to buy and a lot of labour costs to reinstall. A damaged fire hydrant with the brass piece missing.
Close-up of a complete fire hydrant.
How an undamaged fire hydrant appears on the street.
Once the lid has been dislodged, someone has at least tried to steal the brass component.

At another Alex fire that affected scores of people, the community allege the following sequence of events. A man was buying a shack, week by week, in installments. The seller arrived for the final payment and noticed how well-furnished the shack now seemed to be. The seller allegedly returned with a firearm and demanded certain goods including a radio. The resident then allegedly asked the police to arrest the shack-seller for theft of the radio. Later that day the shack-seller allegedly returned, demanding that the resident paid the R500 that it has cost him to be free. (It is not clear if this was bail money or something like admission of guilt money). The resident ran away and the angry shack-seller allegedly returned with a 25 litre drum of liquid fuel, poured it on the shack and set it alight. All the surrounding shacks burned down as well.

On Sept 5th 2001 - 34 shacks burned down in one Alex fire. Typically there average four people to every shack and the basic cost of lost possession, Ids, clothes, etc AND of extinguishing a fire is R10,000 per shack. Children of Fire delivered clothes to the people the next day. The Red Cross provided blankets. There were at least three big fires in September 2001 and many many smaller ones.

Drunks fall asleep, forgetting they have lit a candle or stove. They knock the candle or stove over in their sleep.
Drunks knock candles or stoves over, simply because they are not in full control of their movements.
Drunks get angry and assault their partners - sometimes intentionally causing injury (burns) by throwing a pot of hot food or liquid at the person they are angry with; sometimes accidentally kicking over a stove in the midst of the domestic dispute.

Angry ex-wives or ex-husbands set the shack of their former partner on fire. Sometimes this is done with the intention just to damage possessions; sometimes it is done with the intention of harming the person or people inside. Whether intentional or not, usually large numbers of other people lose their possessions or even their lives, simply because there is no effective mediation available for sad and angry people.
All emotional responses are heightened by alcohol.

People who are jealous of another's success, sometimes resort to arson.
All emotional responses are heightened by alcohol.

Territorial power
Shack attacks by burning are often done to protect territory - whether it be a shebeen business, a shack-renting business, or politically-inflamed xenophobia. If politicians were charged with culpable homicide for their inflammatory speeches, maybe the emergency services would have less day-to-day tragedy to handle.

People need places for safe recreation (e.g. soccer fields) in the poorest communities most of all. They also need more satellite police stations and more police reservists being found within the squatter camp communities themselves.

It is still common to punish children for such "crimes" as bedwetting or for petty theft, by placing the child's hand or hands on a hot stove. Disabled children have even been put in boiling hot baths as "punishment" for behaviour beyond their own control.

Some other causes:
Candles fall over.
Children are left alone and play with matches.
Home-made paraffin stoves explode.
Candles are placed close to flammable materials like curtains.

Problems of Fire Spreading Rapidly

There is ineffective rubbish collection in most squatter camps. On the one hand we hear about the need for poverty alleviation; on the other hand we hear that massive budgets are not spent because there is no infrastructure in place to manage the funds.

There are a variety of paid jobs (at piece-job rates) that could be created in squatter camps or other high-risk communities (as in some hostels), such as rubbish collection on a daily basis.

The jobs should NOT be allocated by political committees nor even (on Children of Fire's experience), by ward councilors. They should be allocated by the most credible, accountable, NGO that has worked in that community for a long time. They could be on a rotating basis to maximize the community benefit and to minimize the potential for corruption.

Fire Hydrant - theft of parts
If there is no large quantity of water readily available, there is no hope of putting out the fire. Children of Fire provides fire-fighting water tanks for some communities. This work should be supported by local companies and by government. African Merchant Bank and the Nedcor Foundation are among several companies that have helped with this initiative so far.

Fools gold - stolen brass is fashioned into tooth edgings that are applied with pliers to give the appearance of wealth. Is it gold or is it brass? A woman in Alexandra has a glittering smile.

The brass stolen from fire hydrants is sold for R6.50 a kilo. It is melted down and made into very thin brass sheet. A sheet measuring some 50cm by 20cm is sold for R50. This is then fashioned into ornamental teeth cappings for people who can't afford real gold, and the brass edging is sold by hawkers (and applied with pliers that often crack the teeth) for between R15 and R50 depending on size.

People get "pretty" teeth at the cost of children being burned.

Proximity of shacks
Town planning could also be used in squatter camps. Not at the same level as the formal suburbs, but there is no logical reason not to apply some safety controls to the people most at risk. They deserve protection as much as anyone else.

Moving the People: After the Fire

The most logical time to move people to better accommodation or at least a safer site, is when their shacks have burned down. We have asked the Mayor of Johannesburg to look at this issue some weeks ago but have yet to receive a reply.

Written October 29th 2001

This material is Copyright The Dorah Mokoena Charitable Trust and/or Children of Fire , 1998-2020.
Distribution or re-transmission of this material, excluding the Schools' Guide, is expressly forbidden without prior permission of the Trust.
For further information, email firechildren@icon.co.za