A painting project aimed at preventing shack fires is underway in Setswetla informal settlement, in Alexandra, north of Johannesburg.
This comes as hundreds of families have been displaced in another section of the township after a devastating fire swept through the area last week. It destroyed about 460 structures.
Managing director of the Heart and Soul Foundation, Welcome Witbooi says:
“The structures that you see in front of you are predominantly made of cardboard mostly and hardwood sheeting which is very light. And if a fire should break out in this community it would roughly burn 5000 shacks.”
The Heart and Soul Foundation has partnered with the Cape-Town based Khusela Ikhaya project – translated from Xhosa it means ‘protect the home’.
The project’s executive director, Ashley Stemmet, says Setswetla is Gauteng’s pilot project – where shacks are painted with a special fire retardent paint to slow the rate of burning and the speed at which township fires spread.
Witbooi says while government and aid organisations deal with the aftermath of last week’s fire in Alexandra a pro-active approach is needed in future.
“Why should we lose life? Why can we not look at the term of ‘prevention is better than cure’. As South Africans we constantly learn this way and it’s sad. We constantly learn to put preventative measures in place after life has been lost instead of having preventative measures in place before hand,” says Welcome.
Stemmet says Setswetla will benefit more than just a face-lift. The time a shack takes to burn will also be extended from three minutes to 10, ensuring additional time to contain the blaze and minimise losses.
“The Khusela Ikhaya project employs unemployed workers from the communities to apply the paint and paint homes, not only with the fire retardent coating, which is predominantly a white colour, but then to add colour to that environment. It’s a very heart-warming story when unemployed people work together to better and at the same time protect their community,” says Stemmet.
Brian Mahlangu is a community leader in Setswetla, and says this community needs protection.
“There’s no roads there is a high fire risk because the shacks are close, so we close the space for service delivery. in the case of emergency, even if there’s a fire it’s going to give us a problem because the fire brigade – it’s not easy to enter inside. And then we have to use buckets to try to fight the fire but it’s not easy because the water is no pressure. So you have to maybe wait for 6 or 7 minutes for one bucket to be full. That’s why many shacks will be destroyed. If this shack can burn now, within a minute all shacks are down,” says Mahlangu.
Colin Ngobeni is one of 25 community members employed by the project – and says when Setswetla burned in 2008 he lost everything.
“Unfortunately that day I was not here so I just got a call and said ay, there is a big fire. Then everything burnt. You know, everything. Beds. All important documents, like ID books, bank cards, your certificates, birth certificates, school. First thing, eish I thought what if my niece got burned? What if my niece is dead? But fortunately the fire brigades came and fought the fire and extinguished it. For me that was a tough time,” says Ngobeni.
Devin Ingram is from Beyond Teambuilding, a corporate outreach partner facilitating social responsibility activities for companies and groups. He says empowerment of the community can only come from sustainable involvement.
“We won’t be able to reach everywhere and that’s why we’re calling out for more people to come forward and volunteer their time and whatever else they can contribute to add some more permanent measures to improve these communities as opposed to the hit and run initiatives,” says Ingram.
He invites the public to join the #PaintITForward challenge on Wednesday, 12 December. All participants need to bring is a paintbrush. Stemmet says he anticipates the Gauteng campaign to be as big a success as in other provinces.
Together, they hope shack fires can be stopped, and that Setswetla’s festive season is a safe one. – Additional reporting by Alundrah Sibanda.