Tears welled up in Frederick Mhangazo’s eyes after his release on bail following his arrest during the Table Mountain blaze.
“I feel good,” he said shakily, when asked how he was after his release.
On Wednesday the court heard that the charges he faced have been being amended from arson to an alleged contravention of a by-law.
Looking tired and overwhelmed, Mhangazo did not want to comment on the charge that he faces, but placed his hand on his pro bono lawyer Shaun Balram’s shoulder in a gesture of gratitude.
Housing activists who had come to support him, shared words of encouragement. “We are with you,” said one.
Said Stephen Maciko to him: “They knew people were living in the forest and they did nothing.”
Balram explained that the charge of arson was no longer being pursued against Mhangazo, following representations on Mhangazo’s behalf.
This was a relief to his lawyer who said the potential sentence for an arson conviction could be as much as 15 years.
“We were thankful that we were able to convince the State that we are no longer proceeding with the charge of arson,” said Balram.
Some of the housing activists wore blue ribbons on their shirts as a show of solidarity with him.
On Sunday 18 April, a fire on Table Mountain spread rapidly, destroying the Rhodes Memorial restaurant, and a library containing irreplaceable works at UCT.
SANParks tweeted that the fire may have been started by a “vagrant”, a comment which began a heated discussion on the assumption that a homeless person had caused the fire.
In the early evening, a neighbourhood watch member said he saw three people running way from another fire also on the mountain, and one person, Mhangazo, was apprehended.
During his first appearance in the Cape Town Magistrate’s Court on a charge of arson, the court heard that Mhangazo came from Tanzania, entering South Africa on a one-month visitor’s visa. He had intended studying Information Technology at the College of Cape Town, but had been waiting ever since then to get a study visa.
In the meantime, he lived near the slopes of the mountain in a plastic structure. He did not have a conventional address, so gave a direction marker for officials to verify the information for bail.
He said his own belongings were destroyed in the fire.
The matter was postponed to verify his address details, but in the meantime, his lawyer made representations regarding the charge.
On Wednesday the court heard that these had led to the charges being amended from arson to an alleged contravention of a by-law.
The matter was then transferred to the Cape Town District Court. After the lunch adjournment, the matter was heard, and the charge was then read out as an alleged contravention of the National Environmental Management Act.
SA Human Rights Commission and asylum seeker affairs monitors were also at court to observe.
Mhangazo had been brought a change of clothing, which included a jacket, and had had his hair cut, in contrast to his first appearance when he arrived looking dazed in a worn flannel shirt and jeans, with grass in his hair.
Balram said R500 had been collected for his bail, and if released, he would live in a communal house in the city, and would attend further proceedings.
It is understood to be a commune established in the wake of the closure of the tents in Strandfontein which had housed homeless people who were not allowed to sleep on pavements during the early days of the Covid-19 lockdown. News24 was told that the commune was linked with social services support.
A kiSwahili interpreter translated the proceedings to Mhangazo.
It emerged that Mhangazo had once previous conviction in terms of the Post Office Act, but the details were not revealed in court.
The matter was postponed to 18 June to compile witness statements, and to verify the details of his entry to South Africa.