Mzimasi Nomvete was sound asleep when he smelt smoke and heard screams just metres from his home.
The 35-year-old resident of Foreman’s Road Settlement in Clare Estate, Durban, heard calls of “fire” early on Sunday morning, waking in a panic.
“People were screaming and saying ‘they are burning’. It was hard to realise what was happening. It happened so quickly.”
Nomvete’s home was a few metres away from the home of a family of three that were horrifically killed when a candle apparently caused a massive shack fire that quickly spread, leaving at least a thousand homeless as well.
“It was just not something we expected,” Nomvete recalled.
It soon becomes clear that the incident has left an indelible mark on the Foreman Road resident of over 12 years.
Flesh fell off their bones
Shaking his head and keeping his arms folded, he explains to News24 in detail how he attempted to save the father, Eric Mpanza, mother Mfikisene Ntuli and their two-year-old child, Sisipho Xulu.
“It’s hard for me to talk about. The things I saw will never leave me in this life.”
When he heard pained cries to assist his neighbours, Nomvete leapt to their assistance.
“I kicked their door down. First we saw the parents and pulled them out and laid them far away from the fire. They were badly burnt. But we had to get them to safety first. The fire was so strong and moving so fast.”
What happened next, Nomvete said, would forever haunt him.
“It was very, very sad. I could not even hold them with their hands. When we tried the meat just came off their bones. We had to get a sheet for the child. We tried to hold him by the hands and legs, but the flesh would come off and there would only be bones.”
Nomvete said the community came together to try to save the family.
“There was no ambulance that could come here. We had to carry their bodies and transport them using cars of people’s relatives.”
‘They were good people’
“They were nice people. They kept to themselves, bringing up their family, and they were quiet. They never did anything to harm anyone,” Nomvete said.
Another resident, Vuyiswa Mbali, 44, who lost her home in the fire, said she was sad for the family that died.
“It was a situation of chaos. We were just grabbing what we could and taking our children. I feel bad for the people who died. As a mother I cannot imagine going through that. They were good people. They were not troubling anyone.”
Mbali said seeing the body of infant Xulu was especially difficult. When describing what she saw, she teared up.
“I am shocked. I am just shocked. The skin was falling apart and you couldn’t even see the child’s face because it was that burnt.”
During News24’s visit of the area on Wednesday, family members declined to comment.
One family member from Umkomaas, identifying himself as Joseph, said: “We want to talk to you, but the family must sit down and we must decide how to move forward”.
We need electrification
Mqapheli Bonono, a resident of the area and representative of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a shack dwellers movement, said the community members were tired of fires.
“This has been happening here for years now. The municipality have made promises. We want to see if they keep them now. If they do not, this community will erupt.”
Bonono said calls for electrification of the area had been made on numerous occasions.
“This time round people are very angry. They just want to live lives of dignity. We see all these people coming here during elections. They kill for our votes. But who is here now? Where are all the politicians?”
Bonono said the municipality had promised to deliver materials for rebuilding homes to the area by Thursday.
“If this does not happen the people will not be happy. They have made a promise and now it must be kept. We have lost enough.”
Bonono said the community would “wait and see”.
Responding to the complaints, eThekwini Municipal spokesperson Tozi Mthethwa said the city’s electricity department had met with a delegation from the informal settlement.
“The meeting was organised by the Human Settlement Unit three months ago. The department agreed to electrify the settlement, provided that there was enough space in between the houses to allow access to trucks delivering and erecting materials.”
She said there was an ongoing engagement between the city and the community.
According to Mthethwa, the electricity department was at Foreman’s Road on Tuesday to ensure that when the community rebuilds informal structures, “such space is provided so electrification can commence immediately”.
“The municipality is ready and has resources to begin electrifying Foreman Road informal settlement.”
Meanwhile, it was reported on Sunday that a firefighter was assaulted and two firehoses were vandalised while fire crews battled the blaze.
Sydenham Community Policing Forum (CPF) member Satish Dhupelia said that initially when the fire was being put out, someone hit one of the firemen with a crowbar and “knocked him out”.
The attack on rescue officials caused a delay in firefighting.
Bonono said the community was aware of the incident and that they condemned it.
“Yes we are aware of this. We are looking for the people who allegedly did that.”