Devastating fires ripped through Cape Town and Charlotte Maxeke Academic Hospital in Johannesburg this week. 

Last Friday, a fire reportedly broke out in a storage room at the hospital and quickly spread, leading to 800 patients being evacuated. Health Minister Zweli Mkhize estimated that about R40 million worth of PPE and other essentials was lost in the fire. 😲

Two days later the University of Cape Town’s main library caught alight. The fire’s origin point was said to be at the Rhodes Memorial. It spread to the university where at least six buildings were destroyed. The most tragic was the Jagger Reading Room that houses a special collection of African books and archives. Estimates suggest that about 3 500 historic collections were lost, the BBC reported. But thanks to fireproofing measures installed in the library’s basement, some collections may have been saved. 

No one was hurt in Joburg, while in CT nine people suffered from smoke inhalation and six firefighters were injured. 

There was talk of what REALLY could have caused these terrible fires. One man, living in a makeshift structure close to the Rhodes Memorial, was charged with arson. 

The fact is, there IS a rather nefarious reason for how these fires raged out of control, but it’s not just one lone arsonist. Besides the climate issue aggravating fires across the globe, SA’s under-resourced fire fighting service is in the spotlight.  Fires in both cities could have been extinguished sooner but fire services could not cope. Our favourite take on this is trade unionist Stephen Faulkner writing about the near criminal neglect of our fire stations and workers, for The Daily Maverick. Faulkner points out that SA did not learn from the infamous fire that broke out at the Bank of Lisbon in Johannesburg three years ago. Johannesburg is supposed to have more than 100 fire appliances ready to cover outbreaks, but at the time, there were only five in the entire city. Fast-forward and little has changed. While many lauded the amazing collaboration between public and private organisations at the hospital, there are concerns: A private firefighting company said the fire hydrants were not working. Faulkner says it doesn’t matter which political party is in charge: firefighters are exploited, underpaid and ill-equipped. Township dwellers have to routinely deal with fires with little help because of a lack of equipment. 

How do we get this right? Our authorities need to take a lesson from Gift of the Givers, who wasted no time getting to the scene in Cape Town. They supplied water, food and toiletries and will provide three meals for the next seven days. Fellow South Africans also contributed in whichever way they could. That’s the spirit our authorities need. Urgently. 

This article appeared as part of The Wrap, 15 April 2021. Sign up to receive our weekly updates