Fire House revisited: Theatre of the municipal maelstrom

AN Mdantsane single mom and a fire fighter, Nonkonzo Hazel Ngxambuza, 34, died in a so-called accident.

I did not know fire fighter Nonkonzo Hazel Ngxambuza, 34, but I know how she died.

It was 8pm on the  Sunday night of June 8 in 2014, about this time three years ago.

The Mdantsane single mom with three kids to raise, had fought her way into the job of Buffalo City Metro (BCM) fire fighter.

She was on duty behind the wheel of a BCM bush tender, basically a bulked up land cruiser, on the two-lane N2 driving to the King William’s Town fire station, one of seven in the metro.

Officially, BCM  said she had a blowout.

She suddenly veered off the slow lane on the N2 outside East London and was killed by the rolling bush tender. I recall thinking this was the loneliest death.

I vividly recall remember standing in an Mdantsane lounge filled with family mourning her death,while knowing that there was a very different side to the official story. But it was clear that the family did not want to annoy officialdom.

Pictures from the upturned wreckage revealed that the truck was fitted with two different sized rear tyres, one smooth and one with knobbly tread making it two centimetres higher. BCM’s lack of capacity to maintain repair vehicles internally is almost non-existent. Fire fighters do it themselves sometimes. Mostly, the work is outsourced and there’s always some issue with payments and parts being delayed, funnily enough, a point also made in Fire House.

The argument was that the stress of this reckless, dangerous set up caused the rear axle of this hardy vehicle to snap off, sending a wheel spinning into the night.

The landy goughed tar, jacked and rolled across the faster lane and into the grassy island and she was dead.

That was the unofficial inside story, and three years later, it has yet to be officially refuted or disproved. Somewhere there might have been a hearing, a document, a result, a better explanation, but nobody in officialdom is rushing to inform the public.

Telling the stories of fire fighters killed in the line of duty are, from left, Katlego Letsholonyana, Tebogo Machaba and Ryan Dittmann who performed in the Kirsten Harris-directed Fire House.

All of this is to say that Fire House, so brilliantly performed at the festival by Katlego Letsholonyana, Ryan Dittmann and Tebogo Machaba, under the wonderful directorship of Kirsten Harris, is eerily representative of the broader national crisis of fire and fire fighting.

Yes, Knysna is the latest and biggest fire disaster but the even larger crisis which Fire House points out is that of political narcissm — politicians love to use the metaphor of fire in their florid and strident oration. But Fire House makes that point thatwhen real fires are on the go and people, often children, are dying,  the ANC, DA and EFF are nowhere to be seen.

It’s more than that though because the crisis of fire, is one of housing. Specifically, the failures of housing policy.

This is cleverly brought home in Fire House by the soundtrack the horrific noise a fire makes when roars, crackles and thumps its way through shacklands and CBD slum blocks. I have reported on a number of fires, many here in Grahamstown and it is terrifying.

So the decline in CBD blocks and the bloom of shacks is a fire waiting to happen. Add to that our crumbling  fire departments, one of the most obvious sign of corruption, according to Corruption Watch, and we have an fire shitstorm on our hands.

It is painful to hear East London fire fighters say that as a result of this failing, corroded, service, when they get to a shack fire, people are so enraged about the piss poor equipment and the time it takes these overworked, understaffed fire fighters to arrive, that they stone the firefighters.

It is lonely-making in the extreme to visit these stations, to see the bloudraad that keeps once-proud fire engines bound together, and to get a glimpse of the petty and pernicious effing round of officialdom which keeps the service and the firefighters and the public at risk.

Why? Because the money has gone. And when you don’t spend the money, in BCM’s case up to R10-million a month is extracted from ratepayers in the form of an iniquitous “fire levy”, things fall apart and frustration builds.

Now comes a play to the festival which makes the political links and is a damn fine piece of theatre. What’s even more significant is that Fire House is a municipal drama. It says that out there, while national and provincial politicians vacuum up public oxygen, the impact of their BS down on the ground, where the people live, is horrific.

The stories of fire fighters, cops, nurses, social workers, teachers, clerks, the general worker, the government cleaners, the industrial and rural slaves of  this post-apartheid, post-democratic, neo-colonial, and sometimes recolonised order, these stories tell the the bigger story of South Africa and where it is going dreadfully wrong.

TIGHT CREW … Fire House director Kirsten Harris, and actors Ryan Dittman, Tebogo Machaba and Katlego Letsholonyana.

I would hope these are the next generation pieces, but at this point are possibly elbowed aside perhaps by the strident ideological warfare waged by fallists, and disrupters, many of them already on the cusp of pushing through to the next level of the class system. In a few years there is every chance that they will out of the working class and into some bucks. Cool for them, but what about the workers?

It is my hope that plays like Fire House are part of a new generation of theatre-makers who can sweep aside this sudden algal bloom of ideological propaganda and, through creativity and conceptualisation,  help us see what is out there. I want them keep on telling us stories that are urgent and real, and so important for surviving, understanding and imagining the next phase.


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