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South African firefighter battles Cape Town blazes and inequality

by Kim Harrisberg | @KimHarrisberg | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 25 August 2021 16:57 GMT

Firefighter Slee Mbhele points while holding a hose during a training session in Cecilia Forest in Cape Town, South Africa, October 10, 2020. Handout courtesy of John Murray/VWS

Image Caption and Rights Information

Slee Mbhele signed up to fight wildfires that engulfed her beloved nature reserves. Now she fears for informal settlements close to vegetation as fires become more widespread

This is part of a series of stories examining how the lives of firefighters around the world are being impacted by climate change.

By Kim Harrisberg

DURBAN, Aug 25 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) -  Slee Mbhele volunteers as a firefighter in South Africa because the racial and economic divides that segregate the country seem to dissolve when confronting a blaze.

She describes fire as "the great equaliser", putting all firefighters on an equal footing, no matter their colour, age or gender, as they work as a team to extinguish the flames.

"We see inequality all around us but when we fight the fire, 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 wildland areas - like nature reserves - in the Western Cape province 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 the white minority apartheid regime in 1994.

Like other cities, Cape Town is visibly divided between the white-dominated suburbs and poor townships, home to most of the country's Black majority and the coloured community - mixed race people who were officially made a racial group under apartheid.

Slee Mbhele poses for a photo as she hands over a sample at the microbiology lab to a colleague where she works in Cape Town, South Africa, January 2020. Handout courtesy of Slee Mbhele.

Mbhele worries that inequality may begin to affect whose homes get burned as wildfires become more frequent.

She fears that the fires will move from suburban homes close to the mountains towards Cape Town's crowded informal settlements, which have limited water supplies and narrow roads that are hard for vehicles to access.

The country's informal dwellings have more than doubled to 4.8 million homes over the last two decades, leaving millions ill-prepared to cope with increasing floods and wildfires, warns the Institute for Security Studies, a local think-tank.

"With informal settlements growing closer to vegetation they are more likely to catch on fire - how do we prevent that? We need to think about the materials used to build shacks, materials that are less flammable," said Mbhele.


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, fierce winds and an increase in flammable vegetation, according to researchers from the nearby 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" as she saw the flames encroaching on the University of Cape Town where she works. She fought the flames for two days, proud and relieved that she was able to help contain the spread.

"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."

Volunteer Wildfire Services firefighters battle a blaze in the Noordhoek wetlands in Cape Town, South Africa, January 27, 2020. Handout courtesy of John Murray/VWS

It was witnessing another fire in 2018 from her workplace that 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 she was not deterred as she has been pushing boundaries since she was young.

"I didn't realise there would be this obvious racial ratio and I thought I might face discrimination but that wasn't the case ... it doesn't matter who is under the mask and the PPE, I realised that this is my tribe," Mbhele said.

Growing up in KwaDabeka, a semi-rural township in KwaZulu-Natal, she witnessed first hand the inequality that divides South Africa when her mother pushed to get her into a good school where certain classmates made her feel inferior.

"Education is everything," said Mbhele, referring to her own life story, but also to fighting fires and learning more about climate change.

From teaching people to clear dry twigs from around their homes to building with less wood, Mbhele feels that poorer communities need to be empowered to protect themselves and their environment from fires in the future.

She also called on South Africans to donate their time and money to battle the blazes.

"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."

    Related stories:

    Climate change turned this Italian car mechanic into a firefighter

    Female 'firies' - fighting flames and stereotypes in Australia

    ‘Learn to live with fire’: a Californian firefighter’s plea

(Reporting by Kim Harrisberg; Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)