South Africa: One year later after devastating fire, residents of Durban hostel still unable to return home

A fire destroyed the homes of more than two dozen families living in a hostel in Mobeni, south of Durban, late on December 31, 2020.

Residents, most of whom live on a piece-rate basis, say they have been living in inhumane conditions since the fire because they cannot afford housing while they wait for the town of eThekwini to renovate the hostel.

The Municipality of eThekwini says the renovations will be completed in March.

Almost a year has passed since a devastating fire engulfed part of a hostel commonly known as eWema in Mobeni, south of Durban. The fire affected more than a hundred inhabitants and completely destroyed the apartments of 28 families who have not been able to resettle since the fire.

Most of the residents affected are elderly. Others rely on piecework or are unemployed. Residents have been unable to find suitable alternative accommodation. They now want KwaZulu-Natal Premier Sihle Zikalala, who visited the hostel shortly after the fire, to step in and help them rebuild the badly damaged parts of the hostel.

A fire victim, Mbuso Mbutho, 26, moved to the hostel a few years ago from KwaNyuswa village, Mahlabathini, outside Port Shepstone. Mbutho currently shares a small storage room at the hostel with another fire victim. “We have no place to stay,” he said.

Mbutho’s brother, Innocent, who also lives at the hostel, said: “It hit us very hard. Right now we find ourselves in a difficult situation because we are all helpless. He said most residents whose apartments have been emptied have resorted to squatting with other families because they cannot afford to rent a cabin on their own.

Community leader Bhekani Zondi told GroundUp that after the fire, Prime Minister Zikalala came to the hostel, took his details and promised to get back to him. But not much happened to renovate the badly damaged apartments.

Zondi said shortly after the fire he contacted Thabani Nyawose from the city to inquire about other housing options for the victims.

According to Zondi, he was told that the space usually used as temporary accommodation was being renovated at the time. He said victims of the fires were instead told to seek shelter with other hostel residents or their families outside.

“I approached a warehouse across the highway, explaining that the victims had lost everything. The company offered us blankets, pillows and mattresses so people could have something to sleep social development,” Zondi said.

Some locals say that when it rains, the water seeps through holes in the roofs caused by the fire.

There are 46 blocks at the eWema hostel with around 5,000 residents, according to Zondi. Residents are mostly from surrounding rural areas and the Eastern Cape.

The chairman of the affected J Block, Siphiwe Cele, said their pleas for help from the municipality had fallen on deaf ears. “There is no help.”

eThekwini Municipality spokesperson Msawakhe Mayisela told GroundUp that the hostel fire was caused by an illegal power connection. Mayisela disputed claims that no housing assistance had been given to residents, saying some people were housed in the nearby community hall and in the hostel.

“There were three blocks affected by the same fire. Two have already been repaired and procurement to repair block J is underway. Repairs should be completed by the end of March,” he said.

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Linda G. Ibarra