Racism during the Cape fire was not ‘lekker’ at all

Out of control fires have raged across large areas of the Cape coastline in the Betty's Bay region since New Year. Photo: Henk Kruger/African News Agency (ANA)

Out of control fires have raged across large areas of the Cape coastline in the Betty's Bay region since New Year. Photo: Henk Kruger/African News Agency (ANA)

A fire department truck raced by, men hanging from its windows, thumbs up, yelling ‘lekker!’ – presumably because ‘white’ homes were burning.

On Friday, my sister was in Hermanus with her oldest son when her husband, who was in Betty’s Bay with the younger children and his mother, phoned.

The wildfire had flared up again and was moving towards their house. The smoke was thick; they were struggling to breathe.

No evacuation order had come through yet, but it hardly mattered – my sister had the family’s car.

They promised they’d leave with the neighbours if instructed, but for now they would rescue important documents and wet the back of their house because this was where the fire would hit first.

Goodbyes were said, contact lost … and then the blaze roared down faster than Usain Bolt.

Her husband beat at the flames as they tore through the farm garden – their family business – only fleeing when defeat was inevitable.

The family raced across the road to the neighbour’s.

Salvaged photos were whipped from their hands by the wind. Jewellery was abandoned and passports left to the flames. The fire jumped the road too. They were trapped.

The children hid in the bath, Ouma and the dog in the shower, while the able-bodied fought the fire surrounding them.

Miraculously, the flames swept on without catching inside either house, though everywhere else homes burnt.

There were no fire engines, no authorities, nobody but the locals who hadn’t escaped in time.

An old lady wrapped in a wet blanket watched her cottage blazing from a boulder; people waited on rocks beside the sea.

Here’s the image that troubles me most though: as the flames descended, a fire department water truck raced by, men hanging from its windows, thumbs up, yelling “lekker!” – presumably because “white” homes were burning?

Later, a vehicle stopped and video footage was taken and the photographer asked if they were okay before rushing off.

But if a chap wearing an official jacket with a camera can get through, where was the help? My sister, stuck in roadblocks in Kleinmond, saw five stationary fire engines.

Maybe they had bigger fires to fight; maybe it was teatime; maybe social media is more important. Or maybe there is smoke in my eyes too.

But these are people. They’re somebody’s people.

This time they were my people. And none of it was lekker at all.

Jennie Ridyard

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