Joe Slovo is on fire


A ladybird  just catapulted onto my desk, on it’s back, spinning around on it’s red shell, wings flailing- I know how it feels… but as I type it has righted itself, buzzed around my face a bit and is now walking across the screen- a little survivor. I didn’t think, three years ago, that I would be writing a blog about children who are getting needlessly burnt because of poverty and the inequality in the world. I should be writing my cancer blog, but I’m still alive and that’s good enough for me on that score. I’m alive because I’ve been lucky so far and, despite the current political climate where the world and its’ citizens are overburdened with problems, I live in a place where there is everything really.

There has been another fire, in the past few days, at Joe Slovo Squatter camp and the devastation is current. Bronwen told me ” the cause was probably an illegal electrical connection because if you are not an electrician, you don’t know how to connect safely. And you shouldn’t.  But hey surprise, poor people want electricity too” I’ve ducked and dived under the endless wires connecting the shacks and seen electric bulbs hanging precariously from corrugated metal roofs. The wires exposed in the rain and connecting double and triple adaptors to appliances, used by old and young.


Bronwen, of course, was right there when she was needed, gathering volunteers and provisions and making their way to the camp despite a dodgy car. She told me that about 260 people lost everything; shoes, clothes, identity documents, school uniform, books, mattresses, blankets, pillows, pots, pans, mementoes, photographs, phones, food, toiletries- everything you would have in a home- a small home. The charity have given what they can, including  12 of their own duvets which means come winter, in June/ July when they need two duvets, the kids at the charity will be cold. But they don’t need things- they need money.




I have so many photographs from my last trip that show the children who live at the camp (many attending the Children of fire literacy class on Sunday mornings) fooling around, vying for a photograph, eager to demonstrate their new literacy skills, and to take their books home to show their families- normal kids eager for normal attention. The adults who have kept it together are proud of what they have, even tiny shacks with basic amenities- their homes. They wanted me to take photographs of their living space.


I’ve stayed with and worked with the children who have been burned because of squatter camp fires. Despite huge prejudice, constant stares, and at times abandonment because of their disfigurements, they are positive because of their contact with the Children of Fire staff.  They are survivors, teens and toddlers; incorrigible dandelions at times and flailing ladybirds at others but overall amazing kids. Many volunteer with the charity when they get older, to educate against fire hazards and teach the young children reading skills. They value human rights because they have seen the worst.

This blog post is a call for action under a cloud of charity overload, exhausted empathy and far too much need out there- but what’s the alternative?  Blogging in a safe and warm house in London, I’m too scared to ask if Prudence is ok.




If you would like to donate, the best place  at the moment is on Bart’s page. He is running a marathon for the charity- take a look at his page. For Brits the government reimburses the tax component and so the charity get an extra 25%- thanks for listening.



Melissa 11


I was eight when I got burnt. I was living in Harare in a house and we called our cousins to visit. It was nearly Christmas. It was time to sleep and my brother ( 18) was sleeping in the kitchen and the cousins in a room with me. My mother’s ex-boyfriend came and was angry because my mother didn’t love him, because he was cheating with another woman. He didn’t know my cousins were at home. He was holding a petrol bomb and some matches. He said he was going to kill the 1st, 2nd and 3rd born children- I was the 4th born and youngest. He put the petrol bomb in the house. When the fire came closer my sister jumped on the bed, my mother was calling me- one of her fingers was stuck to the wall. The man ran away to his family- he already had a wife. The ambulance came, there was a fence I wanted to get through, my skin was hanging. They said ‘don’t hug her, you are making her worse’. Seven people were burnt, my brother was okay because he was sleeping in the kitchen. There was lots of screaming.



Feleng 15 (nearly)



13 when I first met him two years ago, in London,  as he helped me unload my photo equipment and quickly became my assistant, is growing into a sweet young man. Of course he has the usual teenage angst but deals with it with the most theatrical aplomb. He is constantly dancing and singing and always ready with an opinion, and a helping hand to the younger kids. The eternal big brother, Rein Ne Dit adores him..



.. has been fostered by Mitta, ( so Gloria is his granny a gogo) and he has a fine relationship with the family and his cousins. He lives in Dobsonville with the family and attends a high school nearby. Feleng came to pick me up to take me to his home in Soweto on Saturday morning. We travelled by taxi bus, ( he dealt with the money exchange which I still haven’t mastered.) helped me buy some cool shades on the roadside and made sure I wasn’t mowed down by the, his words, ..’Blaaaaack South Africans..if they bump you they do not care! ‘ (sic) drivers. We swaggered into the township, ignoring my whiteness and were greeted by many neighbours, some of who remembered me from last time , and his little ‘brother’. Feleng told me he wants to be a chef when he graduates. I think he may do something in fashion!





Gloria 68 Dobsonville Soweto


Gloria, Mitta’s mother.

It was so good to be invited back to Soweto to stay overnight with the Lebaka family. Gloria thought Mitta was lying when she said I was back, and only believed I had returned when she saw me in her yard. She is the ultimate matriarch, never married, politically active, and hugely influential member of the community. She lived through apartheid and loves to tell stories of her past…and present; ‘I’m still looking for a guy to marry me!’ she says, as she dresses up for a gathering with the local women, with a huge grin.


She talks about her experiences before apartheid ended. ‘ I worked in the Carlton building, which was the highest building in Johannesburg, weaving goat wool. There were different staircases and lifts for black and white. When we became free that was cancelled. One of my bosses, Susan, was from France, I miss her, she treated us well to start with. But, the other bosses told her “we don’t treat them like whites” and in the end she became worse than the South Africans. I think she would be very old now. In those days, darling, it was worse than now. Today we are treated like human beings. Before apartheid finished you wouldn’t have been allowed here. The police would have beaten us, they wouldn’t allow a white person here- they didn’t want us to mix. We would be arrested. Mandela didn’t kill anyone and he was put in prison just for saying what he wanted to say. Now we have been given a platform to say no. It was like the wall of Berlin coming down.

We had to apologise if we touched a white person, we were called Kaffir and couldn’t use the same toilet. It was worse in Lesotho- we were given yesterdays’ bread..that’s why we are so excited- we are free. Of course there are still problems, some schools are still segregated and some uncultured whites still cause problems in the shopping queues.’ I pointed out that I was the only white person I had seen that day. Gloria stated ‘yes , but it’s ok because the people know you are not white South African, if you were you wouldn’t be here.’


Katherine Metseeme


Katherine Metseeme 75. Dobsonville Soweto

Metseeme (houses are standing)

I spent the evening with six gogo’s, (otherwise known as the grannies, wether they have grandchildren or not) Mitta and her mother Gloria last night in Dobsonville. They cooked, chatted (in Zulu, Setswana and English to keep me in the loop- sort of)  Mitta was going to take me into town but after the biggest, loudest, booming electric thunderstorm and my need to hear more stories from the wonderful mamma Gloria, we decided to stay close to home. I was dressed in one of Gloria’s dresses after the downpour soaked me through, so I felt I fit in well!? I met Katherine who told me a little about her life, in Setswana, translated by Mitta.

‘I was born in Litchenburg in the North West. Then I lived in Rodiport in the suburbs. We had livestock and grew our own vegetables. It was a really nice place. In 1956 I was in school. In 1960 I moved to Dobsonville. We were forced to move from the outer suburbs and into the townships through a government law. The land was dry there- we didn’t want to move. Some people lost their houses and didn’t get any money for them. They wanted Rodiport for the white people. There were lots of houses built but not enough for the amount of people.’

 ( The 1976 uprising was a turning point causing the Government to rethink its policies on limited residential development. In 1978 legislation was passed making it possible for Africans to obtain 99 year leasehold title on their houses. From 1983 Sowetan’s could purchase their houses at very discounted prices. In the same period government started to invest heavily in service infrastructure. Effective demand totally outstripped supply and backyard structures and informal settlements started to appear. 

Soweto falls within the municipality of the Johannesburg Metropolitan Council. The original rental houses, which make up the majority of the housing stock, have now been sold to the tenants who received a subsidy from the government to cover the cost of the houses. Private sector housing was developed from the 1980’s funded by the various banks. Freehold title is available to these properties. Services are provided by the Johannesburg Metro council and electricity by Eskom. There are also extensive informal settlements, hostels and backyard shacks in the area.

Soweto has long been viewed as the dusty apartheid township beyond the towering mine dumps south of Johannesburg’s inner city, Soweto’s image is now changing and it is increasingly considered as a good investment proposition.) Wik

Curriculum vitae


The other evening the children came on masse, as they often do, to the little cottage I stay in on site when I’m here. There is always a lot of humour at the Chifi house and,  after the children had formulated their CV’s at school that day, Bronwen sent them along to me to ask for a job. Even Rien ne Dit, the three year old waved a crumpled piece of paper at me. I said I’d get back to them. Their CV’s are pretty good though. Some of the children speak four or so languages. They taught me that Ngiyakunthanda means I love you in Zulu so I’m happy!  The languages are similar African dialects but I’m in awe as they hold conversations with each other, swapping dialects between each other, depending on who they are talking to and who is in the group. Quite a skill. I’m not sure whether all of the children have bigged up their skills enough- Harmony and his musical talents that include playing jazz on the piano, even with one hand bandaged and their proficiency in swimming and chess. Their enthusiasm and ability to discuss in depth issues encouraged by the adults that work with them grow through their regular group meetings in the Chifi garden- often in the evening as the sun goes down. They are a pretty damn special bunch of kids- but hey I think I already said that.


Melissa -playing chess on the platform while we waited for the delayed steam train.

Loide Ndemueda

Loide 20

I first met Loide when she was in London in late 2014, when she went to Pinner.  At end-2016 she had just matriculated ( graduated) from school but was awaiting her results. She wants to study philosophy, politics and economics – she’ll need a scholarship for that – and then maybe to go on to a law degree.dsc_3450-2

We have talked a lot over the years and she developed a good relationship with Taigh when we were here last. I had never really heard her story, though, just snippets from herself and Bronwen. She had been wanting me to take her photo, being, naturally, from the selfie generation. She is a strong young woman and has a clear and determined sense of human rights, campaigning for Native American Leonard Peltier’s release from jail and for the rights of burned children. One of her many roles this past year has been to assist after shack fires and to oversee the Sunday Literacy scheme at Joe Slovo squatter camp. The kids there love her and she knows many of the community members.


This morning she told me the story of how she was burned.

I was thirteen, living in Limpopo when I got burnt and it was probably intentional- a fight over land. The neighbours wanted to buy some land but the community refused.  The white American owners, though I don’t want this to be seen as racist- it was a particular family, got angry.  There was also a very senior South African black politician implicated.the first day after the school holidays. We could see smoke behind the houses. Everybody ran, trying to put the fire out before it caught the whole field alight. The man made a small gap in the electric fence so that he could get in and out – we thought he was helping but the fire extinguishers seemed to make the fire worse.

He started running after the kids, spraying them and they ran and tried to get over the electric fence.  It was winter but quite hot. I had jerseys and long school socks on but my sister was wearing shorts. I could hear my sister screaming so I went back to get her – I still didn’t know the cause of the fire. When someone asked the man to help and turn the fence power off, his employees were told to stay where they were. He shouted ‘it’s none of my business’.

A white woman came to help with plastic bags, water and her car and said- ‘hurry before he sees us.’  Then I believed it was an intentional attack and we had been trapped between electric fences. The ambulances came but the police didn’t.  It was alleged that the guy had paid friends in the police. Fingers and skin were left on the wire fence.

Seven children survived but ten children died, all of them my friends, and including my sister who was nine years old. I didn’t know she had died until a year later. She was in the burns unit and I was in the surgical unit. People thought it would be too stressful for me to know while I was ill.  My mum stopped coming to visit me for a while and they told me my sister had been moved to Pretoria.

Finally I was brought to Children of Fire. I was the only lucky one out of all 17, because I got so much more specialised surgery then, even a R100,000 hip replacement. I was enrolled in Greenside High School which was so much better educationally than what was available to me at home. And now I have two homes, two families, because Auckland Park has become home too.

I have travelled to Britain twice and I dream of getting a place at Oxford University but I know it will take time to improve my English for that. I wanted to stand as a ward councillor at the last elections and had enough community signatures of support for that but then knew I had to focus on my schooling first.

I researched the legal issues around my case with a French Law Student Simon Holley and we remain friends. I think that one day Simon might become President of France because he has already worked directly with the President of Canada. I am proud to know him and I think he is proud to know me. Children of Fire has given me the opportunity to work with and meet such a wide range of people. If I had not been burned, I might have been a Nobody in Vingerkraal but as I survived, now I will be a Somebody in the World.



Lebohang 23

‘I got burnt when I was thirteen years old. There was a new casino opening at Lourier Park, Bloemfontein, near where I lived. There were three of us who wanted to go and see the new place. One of the boys I was with was playing with matches. The building was still under construction and there was felt on the ground. He dropped a match and the felt caught alight. The fire started growing and we panicked. I tried to put it out. I saw a two litre bottle of what I thought was water, so kicked it at the fire. It turned out to be paraffin. The others ran away and tried to find my mum, and I was just spinning trying to get the fire from my legs, by ripping of my trousers, but they had stuck to my legs. I was taken to Pelenomi Hospital and spent six months there. They said I had 80% burns and they had to take skin from my upper legs to graft on the lower bits. I suffered lots of discrimination and name calling at school. Some time after a social worker from the hospital put me in touch with the Children of Fire charity.’