Fanning the flames instead of dousing them

The country has been agog and aghast at the destruction wrought by the runaway fire on Table Mountain that began on Sunday. Many people were devastated by the loss of priceless artefacts from UCT.

In typical twitterati style, others were happy that (a) the university was being decolonised by fire, even though most of the irreplaceable texts were Struggle ones or (b) that the university was getting what it deserved for kowtowing to the Fallists.

Up north Johannesburg had its own fire. The devastation at Charlotte Maxeke Academic Hospital fast enough was extensive, but the coverage was muted in comparison to the footage of tireless Cape firefighters and helicopter pilots dumping buckets of water from the air on Table Mountain.

Thankfully no lives were lost at Charlotte Maxeke. Probably because of the dearth of immediate and tangible tragedy, coverage of the hospital blaze was almost eclipsed by the far more extensive and photogenic mountain inferno. 

For people living in Johannesburg watching the harrowing footage on their cell phones and TVs – or watching millennials declare themselves safe on Facebook from their homes in Milnerton – the unspoken question was what happens if we have a fire here?

If 2018 is anything to go by, when three firefighters tragically perished when the old Bank of Lisbon building caught fire right next door to The Star, the answer is dire. Johannesburg has been beset by a fire engine and equipment crisis for years now – three years in fact before that towering inferno. 

We have 30 fire stations and at last count, depending on who you believe, between four and seven functioning fire engines deployed between them. If there is a fire, we have to hope that the fire brigades in Pretoria, Krugersdorp or even Kempton Park are available when the siren goes. Alternatively, we just have to hold thumbs that the fire just burns itself out and doesn’t jump from building to building in the CBD – or dwelling to dwelling in our packed informal settlements.

The bitterest of ironies is that the issue is not that there’s not enough money to buy vehicles – the council set aside R500-million in its last attempt. The issue is not that there aren’t companies right here in Gauteng, not overseas, who can build and supply the equipment – three companies bid for the Red Fleet Tender. The issue is not that there haven’t been numerous attempts to procure this equipment.

The issue instead seems to be (a) political infighting in the city council and (b) whenever tenders have been awarded, they’ve been so tainted with corruption, they’ve been set aside by the court – as happened earlier this month.

It’s an incredibly apt snapshot of South Africa in 2021, pandemic included. We can see the answers, we know what we have to do, but we either can’t agree to put our differences aside and do what’s right for every single one of us. Or someone somewhere needs to have their palms greased – even when it’s literally a case of life and death.

The only good news is there’s a local government election on October 27. 

Choose wisely. 

Originally published by the Saturday Star on 24 April 2021.