WE SURVIVED THE GREAT KNYSNA FIRE
We are the survivors. With help from friends and strangers, we got through the worst fire in our country’s history. Some of us did our best to help too. We are rightfully emotional, especially for unresolved issues. It is assured that we are experiencing mixed memories on its third anniversary (June 7). Kindness is godsend, anger is not…
SOUTH AFRICANS RUSHED TO HELP US
2017 must be remembered for our dead and damaged but also for the praiseworthy way South Africans, from every province, rushed to assist us. We may have been separated from the world, the fire encircling us, but we were not alone. Yes, some things got stolen but food and clothes arrived in abundance. Residents of neighbouring towns grabbed shovels, jumped in their bakkies and rode to fight the fire.
According to the Garden Route Rebuild website, “1,100 formal and informal homes were destroyed and about 8,000 people were evacuated.” That means that 68,000 of us stayed. That destruction figure increases if we count the fires, that were happening the same time, in next-door Plettenberg Bay.
As most residents had no warning of the approaching wall of fire or fireballs, depending on what area they were in, we were inordinately fortunate that it happened during the day. If it had been night, the losses would likely have likely been in the unbearable hundreds or even over a thousand. Although we must count our good fortune, that does not diminish the pain for the friends and family of the 6 who died in Knysna. I may not have known her but it is especially hard for me to think of the toddler who died in my area.
Many would agree with me that the number is 8 – Mandy Johnston (28), who suffocated, was near to giving birth; Bradley Richards (24), a Bitou fireman, was adopted by our hearts after he died fighting in the Harkerville Forest in between Knysna and Plettenberg Bay.
THE WORST THING IS IF TRAGEDY TEACHES US NOTHING
What lessons did we learn? Are we better prepared for next time?
1. The loudest complaint by residents is with reference to the donations to the Knysna Municipality. It is unlikely that an investigation into the alleged theft of goods could be undertaken so long after the fact but the money that went into the account set up by the Knysna Municipality should have been an easy accounting. Instead, 3 years on, there is a barbwire fence between residents and local government. That aids suspicion that money was stolen, mishandled or misappropriated.
2. There has been no visible report on the Knysna Fire victims register. How many applied? What goods or money was allocated to that fund, what was handed out, and to whom?
3. The Knysna Municipality and Council issued a report into the cause of the fire. From the outset, residents dismissed it as fraudulent. We were substantiated by 2 independent forensic investigations (Afriforum and CSIR), an expose in Noseweek, and much on Knysna Keep, my old activism website. Are there people who should have been held responsible for some of what went wrong? If not, it is only fair that their names be cleared of the rumours that follows them.
4. How many complaints did Local and Provincial Government receive? What were the topics and how have they been handled? Why is it that there is no publicly available information about this?
5. What is the status of litigation and insurance? The last figure we heard, long ago, was R480-million.
6. How are we better prepared if there is a next time? Where are we at with indigenous replanting and alien eradication? If a fire arrived in the dead of tonight, would we know?
GOVERNMENT TOOK CREDIT WHILST IT FAILED US
The Western Cape Government deserves criticism for not stepping in with answers. Considering the size of the disaster, and the hundreds in millions in damage, National Government should have had an interest too. It is not appropriate that elected representatives and municipal staff were on television a lot, during and just after the crisis, and then suddenly they were not and, just like that, we were forgotten.
Locally, the same negative attitude links the Great Knysna Fire to our current economic crisis wherein there is no accountability for missing money and property, and instead, for no fault of our own, we are expected to allow our town to be administered by a provincial authority whose ministers are implicated in local corruption.
That a town can be treated as inconsequential for the sake of the coming elections is horrifying but nothing more than the disturbia we have known for years. That it is happening during the covid-19 health emergency seems opportunistic. How much freedom will fear allow us to lose? It is possible that a political calculator already has that answer?
We are expected to accept that our representatives do not have to be transparent, and that anyone alleged to have been involved in corruption need not be investigated or, if they are, they do not have to be punished, and can simply take up a new position without the baggage of their sins against us.
THERE IS NO ONE TO PUT OUT THIS FIRE
The South African Humans Rights Commission lied that it would help, then went silent. The Hawks and the Office of the Public Protector have whitewashed their reports so lily-white that they can only be considered part of the cover-up. The Western Cape Government has not acted on the complaint against Helen Zille. The Legislature will not act against Premier Alan Winde and MEC Local Government Anton Bredell.
The ANC’s Cameron Dugmore is one the worst, the leader of the opposition party who smiles whilst never opposing. The FF+ and EFF lied too. COPE and the ACDP failed us. In our province, God is the DA, and its devils are in Knysna.
Like Zille and Winde, ex-Knysna Mayor Eleanore Spies got promoted to Parliament despite a damning investigation against her (and another against her husband). Fire Chief Clinton Manuel, the composer of that fraudulent fire investigation that cleared himself of responsibility, transferred to Cape Town where unions marched against his presence.
Because we never learnt the lesson from our Knysna Fire disaster, which is that we must respect ourselves enough to demand good governance, we’re in a different kind of disaster that may be worse. We’ve been lied to and robbed. Consequently, we’re bankrupt without a single politician or official paying a price.
We have Michele Gratz, an Acting Municipal Manager, who resigned spewing false conspiracy theories yet stayed on as part of a plot to have Knysna taken out of our control. And the same provincial leaders implicated in past maladministration and corruption in our town, seem to be be the ones directing this future that is without us. Yet we stand still, waiting for another fire to burn everything we have.
Knysna is a 9-year system of rot that has eaten away the foundations of our community. It has no intention of being representative but demands we serve it blindly. It relies on us choosing a side, a personality or a political party, and then for us to sway with their every motion even as they become a blur. In this confusion, we’ve traded knowledge for propaganda, opinion for gossip, hope for apathy, and our saddle for slavery.
But during the Great Knysna Fire we banded together for our proudest moment. Someone deep inside, we know we can be and do better.
Please share. Make South Africa know the trouble we’re in. If you’re not exhausted after this long read, consider the pdf complaint below, or making a comment on Facebook.
My Great Knysna Fire complaint was first sent to then Premier Helen Zille, then as a complaint to the Western Cape Government (doubled with a complaint against her), and then to the Hawks who flew to meet me regards that and many other issues. The complaints vanished. Referenced materials can be found at ‘Evidence in the Public Interest’.Mike Hampton Knysna Fire affidavit (original)