Five young children ‘died holding each other’ when a fire engulfed their home after they were left there alone, it has been claimed.
The kids, aged between one and eight, were siblings and cousins whose mums had gone out drinking near the South African capital Pretoria on Saturday night, it is believed.
At around 4.26 am on Sunday, emergency services were called to a fire in the informal settlement of Itireleng, southwest of the city.
Four shacks went up in flames, taking the lives of Lethokuhle and Siyanda Masango, aged one and four, along with their cousins Senzo Mahlatsi Machika, two, Themba Thulane, six, and eight-year-old Dimakatso.
‘The children’s bodies were close together and it seems they died holding each other,’ said neighbour Gilbert Mahlelebe.
Mums Lindiwe Machika, 39, and Zanele Machika, 36, were arrested and each charged with five counts of child negligence and five counts of culpable homicide.
The dad of three of the children, Johannes Masongwane, woke up to a nightmarish call from locals telling him his kids had died.
He said there was so much destruction he could not ‘even point at his kids or their remains because everything was just ash’.
The devastated parent told local outlet SowetanLIVE: ‘I was with my children on Saturday and my partner told me she was taking our kids to visit their aunt (her sister).
‘I didn’t know they would be sleeping over there and only learnt about it late in the evening.
‘At about 3 am, I got a call that my children had burnt. When I got to the scene, I found that my children had burnt beyond recognition.
‘Their mother and her sister were not there. They have ruined my life. I lost everything.’
Both mums, who are still in police custody, gave Mr Masongwane’s address as the place they would stay if Atteridgeville Magistrate’s Court granted them bail.
But Mr Masongwane refused to help them, saying: ‘I don’t want them near me, they should not receive bail.’
‘I will never forgive them – they must rot in jail,’ he added.
The kids’ paternal grandma Johanna said: ‘I am upset because the children had a good life with me and now they are gone.
‘(Their mums) must stay there and die in jail because we lost kids all because of alcohol, they deserve to die in prison.’
Mr Mahlelebe told how he and several others had to use buckets of water to bring the blaze under control themselves because the roads in the crowded area were too narrow for a fire engine to fit through.
Itireleng has long been classed as a dangerous place to live for its population of about 30,000 who largely live in poverty.
With extremely limited access to official infrastructure, residents have set up illegal electricity connections which pose significant fire threats.
The local government representative for human settlement, Lebogang Maile, visited Itireleng on Monday and said all its residents needed to be relocated because it is ‘uninhabitable’.
‘I cannot give time frames as to when these people will be moved but the city has to do something about this place – people are not supposed to be staying here,’ he said.
Itireleng is just one of the thousands of informal settlements in South Africa, all of which are vulnerable to fires because of overcrowding and poor construction.
A staggering 5,544 informal settlement blazes were reported in 2019 alone, the most recent year for which this data from Stellenbosch University is available.
The government and local leaders have long been under pressure to address this issue but it is a complicated one.
Many residents cannot afford to live in any other kind of housing, some are illegal immigrants with no way of renting officially and any efforts to rebuild settlements more safely leaves less space and ends up displacing people.
Mr Maile told TV news channel eNCA it was a ‘big, big challenge for the government to prevent the constant growth of informal settlements.
‘We want to urge our communities to cooperate and work with us to prevent the mushrooming of informal settlements,’ he said. (Metro)