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Children of Fire Squatter Camp Firefighting Water Tank

At 3am on Sunday July 15th 2001, some forty five shacks were razed at the Joe Slovo squatter camp in Coronation, Johannesburg. It is a credit to the Children of Fire trainees and the Brixton Fire Brigade that the fire was contained in one area, despite it starting just behind Aron Rambuda's shebeen (pub) and his paraffin stores adding significantly to the blaze.

The gas cylinders that Rambuda used to power his fridges for beer and soft drinks, exploded one by one, putting the firefighters and the trainees at great personal risk. The fire left some 140 men women and children homeless and without even the most basic of possessions. They scraped through the embers for nails (to refix walls and roofs) and for the occassional coin that had survived. Disaster Management organised one blanket for each person but they had to request other people to squeeze them into already overcrowded shacks for the next night. It is very cold in Johannesburg in July, descending to freezing on many nights.

Children of Fire provided clothes for some of the people, particularly to support our trainee Daniel Radebe who had been sleeping in one of the affected shacks - and storing all his clothes there - while there were visitors in his own shack.

The sole water tank in the camp was not close enough to be effective in the powerful blaze. Children of Fire has, however, got a further ten tanks currently being manufactured for some R40,000 in Hammanskraal, that should be delivered to the squatter camp shortly. It was difficult to find appropriate places to put the tanks because the shacks are so close together, but the devastation of July 15th may help make such space if a few residents decide to move on.

Sponge test
Square manhole
The tanks have been modified a little from the first design. They will now be silverish, to reflect heat; the tap handles will be smaller and vertical instead of horizontal; the pipe bore to the taps will be larger; there will be a sight glass on the side to show how much water is still in the tanks; the filling hole is larger for fire brigade hoses; and there will be a square "manhole" on top, to facillitate annual algae checks and cleaning as well as to check the thoroughness of the corrosion-proof lining to the tanks.

The lining is tested with a "wet sponge" or brush technique that emits a beep if there is the smallest hole in the coating.

Tanks to date have been sponsored by African Merchant Bank, the Nedcor Foundation; First National Bank; Ukuvuka and Impala.

On November 28th, 2000, the City of Cape Town recommended that the massive Joe Slovo squatter camp in the suburb of Langa should be declared a disaster zone. More than 1000 families, affecting some 4000 people, were left destitute when a fire ravaged the settlement on Sunday, November 26th. The cause of the blaze had not been determined, but was suspected to have been an unattended brazier.

Children of Fire has worked with Cape Town's Disaster Management team, headed by Greg Pillay, as well as with Ukuvuka ("wake up" in Xhosa), an organisation set up in the wake of massive fires on Table Mountain. Children of Fire also regularly shares information with Donald Sparks, head of Cape Town's Fire Brigade.

While the media have reacted with shock to the blaze, they overlooked the remarkably positive news that no one died in the fire and only a couple of people had relatively minor injuries.

Children of Fire attributes this success to the awareness campaigns it participated in, in August 2000; and to the extensive follow-up awareness exercises run by Ukuvuka and Disaster Management since that time.

Many residents of Cape Town's Joe Slovo settlement (we also work in a squatter camp of the same name in Johannesburg) met Dorah Mokoena in August. Some people did not believe that Dorah was human at first, as they had never met a burn survivor who had been so badly injured. But once they understood that she is a normal little six-year-old girl inside, the message of fire danger was made more strongly than ever before.

Following the massive blaze, people were housed in more than 100 tents erected by the Army, and in schools. Scores of chemical toilets were brought in and City manager Andrew Boraine said R500,000 had been set aside from contingency funds to cover council costs. Large supermarket chains assisted with food and the Red Cross and Salvation Army worked across the area.

The problem at Cape Town's Joe Slovo squatter camp remains that of far too many people in too small an area, that is unsuitable for human habitation and difficult to access. Helicopters could not be used to douse the fire from the air, because of powerlines - but it seemed that no one thought to simply order the power utility to cut off the electricity.

In the Western Cape province, and in Cape Town in particular, there has been an initiative to hand out green plastic rings to put around the base of paraffin stoves to make them more stable; and green plastic candle holders to make candles similarly more stable. The devices are fairly flimsy and are of no use unless every single shack uses them and, even then, only if people are thoroughly educated in fire prevention and in neighbourliness.

Children of Fire tells people about the devices in other provinces, to at least get them talking.... and talking to each other. We do not think that they are the answer though. Far more important is to establish fire breaks of 3 metres between shacks and to have sufficient water on hand, to put a fire out quickly. To this end, Children of Fire came up with a list of parameters for the design of a water tank. Mining company Impala Platinum has taken up the challenge and engineer Jacques Labuschagne has built a prototype that will be placed in Johannesburg's Joe Slovo* squatter camp shortly.

The main elements are a 2300 litre tank usually costing about R2500, six lever taps costing about R50 each, a little bit of pipe and some wisdom and welding skills. The tanks are supplied by Springbok Tanks (with the stand) to petroleum company Caltex - which uses the tanks for diesel - but obviously one wants to get them before diesel has been put in and ideally the drainage hole should be positioned differently before one starts adding pipework. Currently the drainage hole is off-centre - but Labuschagne relocated the hole to a central position. He designed the container to ChiFi's specs but added his own ingenuity.

A black food dye will be added to the water and an unpleasant-tasting chemical, so that it isn't taken for drinking or washing. Ideally the pipes should be of a wider bore and it would be good to have some sort of gauge on the tank to show how full it is - or isn't. The tank legs will probably be cemented into the ground. It is hard to estimate how much corrosion will be a factor in tank-life.

The tanks can be refilled by fire engine hoses in the area where we will place the first prototype. We also hope that a further donation of 20 tanks will help take this project forward.. but that has yet to be confirmed.

* For any foreigners reading the website, the late Joe Slovo was the Housing Minister in South Africa's first multiracial government. Naming squatter camps after him seems to be done regularly with tongue-in-cheek.

For a drawing of how a water tank is constructed please click here.

This material is Copyright The Dorah Mokoena Charitable Trust and/or Children of Fire , 1998-2020.
Distribution or re-transmission of this material, excluding the Schools' Guide, is expressly forbidden without prior permission of the Trust.
For further information, email firechildren@icon.co.za