News / South Africa

Kim Harrisberg
3 minute read
27 Aug 2021
8:40 am

‘The great equaliser’: The power of fires against inequality

Kim Harrisberg

Firefighter believes the racial and economic divides in South Africa dissolve when you are confronting a blaze.

Picture: Twitter/WoF

Slee Mbhele volunteers as a firefighter and believes the racial and economic divides in South Africa dissolve when you are confronting a blaze.

She describes fire as “the great equaliser” it puts all firefighters on an equal footing no matter their colour, age or gender.

“We all pull our weight together, we are all the same,” said the 40-year-old medical researcher, who has been part of Cape Town’s Volunteer Wildfire Services for three years.

The charity has been fighting wildfires in wild land areas like nature reserves in the Western Cape since 1999, leaving the urban flames to the city’s firefighting team.

South Africa is one of the world’s most unequal countries, according to the World Bank, marred by poverty, high levels of crime and corruption nearly 30 years after the end of apartheid in 1994.

Mbhele worries what will happen to Cape Town’s crowded informal settlements if runway fires should strike there.

The settlements have limited water supplies and narrow roads that would make vehicle access to fires hard.

The country’s informal dwellings have more than doubled to 4.8 million homes over the past two decades, leaving millions of people ill-prepared to cope with increasing floods and wildfires, warns the Institute for Security Studies.

“With informal settlements growing closer to vegetation, they are more likely to catch fire,” said Mbhele.

“How do we prevent that? We need to think about the materials used to build shacks, materials that are less flammable.”

From Siberia to Australia, wildfires have devastated both natural habitats and residential areas in recent years, as climate change spurs higher temperatures and droughts.

“Fires are in your face now, other countries are battling blazes, it’s on the news… if you don’t know about it, it’s because you don’t want to know,” said Mbhele, a mother of one.

Cape Town regularly experiences fires, often triggered by human behaviour and likely spurred on by climate change, according to researchers at the University of Stellenbosch.

The city was hit in April by one of its worst wildfires in recent memory, which spread across the slopes of Table Mountain to the University of Cape Town, damaging historical sites and libraries and forcing people to evacuate their homes.

Mbhele described the April fires as “devastating”. She fought the flames for two days.

“It is different seeing it in the news, compared to being in the midst of it,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “It gets very real, very quickly.”

Witnessing another fire in 2018 from her workplace spurred Mbhele to go online to see how she could help. And she came across the Volunteer Wildfire Services.

Although 70% of their 287 volunteers are men and she is the only black female, Mbhele said: “I realised that this is my tribe.”

She grew up in KwaDabeka, a semi-rural township in KwaZulu-Natal, and experienced inequality first-hand when her mother pushed to get her into a good school but where she was made to feel inferior by the other pupils.

But fighting the fires and how people supported one another showed her a different side.

“I once came back from fighting a fire wet, muddy and tired and people had donated food, even pizza,” Mbhele said.

“It didn’t matter that it was cold, I ate it because I was starving. And I loved that moment, because I saw how Cape Town got together and we were a community.”

– Thomson Reuters Foundation