Fire House is the play out of hundreds here at the National Arts Festival which should come to East London.
I have investigated and reported on the declining conditions of the Buffalo City Metro (BCM) fire department over the past few years, and am ashamed to say that even so, it took a dramatisation of the lives of South African firemen to drive home how direct and tragic the consequences of this neglect are for both firefighters and the public.
It’s common knowledge that the cause of this crisis is corruption and leadership indifference, if not selfishness – easily illustrated by a drive past the faded and forlorn Fleet Street fire station.
Yet, in a dry winter, our firefighters and their fire engines, hoses, protective gear, and breathing apparatuses are needed more than ever.
The recent devastation of homes and loss of lives in Knysna has also served to bring to attention the crisis of fire, but as Fire House graphically points out, the even greater crisis is how our failure to provide decent housing for the poor has spawned a shack fire horror which regularly kills the most vulnerable, many of them children.
The play takes us through the daily lives of three firemen, vibrantly played by Katlego Letsholonyana, Ryan Dittmann and Tebogo Machaba. They have a deep brotherhood expressed through humour and playfulness until the next alarm calls them to action – and the next dangerous and traumatic event in their lives.
This is not imagined. Rhodes University drama school-educated director Kirsten Harris said the actors were trained and given insights into firefighter culture by Johannesburg firefighters under the leadership of Berea, department platoon commander Lizelle Delport.
She said Delport was a force to be reckoned with, but had a softer side.
Despite the ingrained culture of “brotherhood” among firefighters, the truth is more diversified.
Harris shows me a wedding picture of Delport marrying the love of her life – a woman.
The play cleverly works with two intertwined phases of the life of a firefighter: downtime and crisis time, where lives are at risk, and sometimes lost.
The set is simple and clever. A two-piece ladder, a draadkar toy fire engine, yellow boots and hats, red crates and a smoke machine, working as shapeshifters to match the scene.
There is a palpable pause when the firefighters, alarms ringing, get into their fire engine and try and turn the starter key. It’s funny when they all rock and will the engine to start but we sigh in relief when it kicks into life. The point is sharply made about the calamity spawned by highly paid bureaucrats failing to repair and maintain fire engines and equipment.
There is a theme in this workshopped play, which links the metaphor of fire used so often in the strident and florid speeches of politicians and the fact that when there is an actual blaze and people are trapped and dying and in need of rescue by firefighters, the ANC, DA and EFF politicians are all “nowhere to be found”.
The storyline, however, moves this play. We laugh and cry at the drama, but afterwards, director Harris says it is based on the true story of how, in 2014 firefighters Daniel Zwane, 50, and Michael Letsosa, 34, died in a blazing basement.
Zwane had called his colleagues on his cell and said: “I am dying. I can feel my soul leaving my body.”
Firefighters at their funeral turned their backs on their boss during his speech. Their T-shirts had pictures of Zwane and Letsosa on them. They sang the traditional SA song of lament – Senzeni Na? (What have we done?).
I have seen many critical political pieces at the festival, and at a time in society when the machinations of high politics has taken on an almost narcissistic fascination, this is a rare work which poignantly and powerfully brings to life politics at a municipal level, where most people are affected.
I vividly recall standing in a Mdantsane lounge filled with family mourning a BCM firefighter and single mom of three – Nonkonzo Hazel Ngxambuza, 34.
At about 8pm on the Sunday night of June 8 2014 she suddenly veered off the slow lane on the N2 outside East London and was killed inside the rolling vehicle. I recall thinking this was the loneliest death.
BCM said the Land Cruiser had a “blowout”.
Pictures of the wreckage, however, revealed the truck was fitted with two different-sized rear tyres, one with a knobbly tread making it 2cm higher. The stress of this allegedly caused the rear axle to snap and a wheel to shear off.
That was the unofficial inside story, and three years later it has yet to be officially refuted or disproved.
Perhaps, the next play about firefighters should be about Nonkonzo Hazel Ngxambuza. — firstname.lastname@example.org