Three times, thrice, tolled the bell, calling home for eternity, firefighter Makelepe Cedric Seokoma, the last peal of the bell perfectly timed with the final mournful note of the Last Post.
The skirl of the pipes filled the Stellenbosch Town Hall with the opening bars of Amazing Grace, as Cape Winelands District Fire and Rescue Services regional commander Heinrich Louw and medical resources technician, Attie le Roux, led the salute to our fallen comrade. And the tears flowed.
I never met Makelepe on the fireline, but we may well have passed each other at some point, he coming off the line with a Working on Fire (WoF) crew, as we hiked in to take over on one of the many recent fires in the Cape Winelands.
He was much loved and respected by his comrades in WoF and the wider firefighting community, as was evidenced by speaker after speaker during his memorial service, on Wednesday February 14, just nine days after he died on the fireline.
The fire that killed Makelepe started on forestry company property on the northern slopes of the Simonsberg Mountain on the preceding Saturday, and despite a rapid deployment of significant resources, unfavourable weather conditions drove the fire across the mountain, and it was still raging on Monday February 5.
Makelepe was on the line with his crew from the WoF Strand Firebase that day, when he was cut off by the fast-moving conflagration, and The Beast took him.
Makelepe Cedric Seokoma was 36 when he died.
He joined WoF at Sekororo Firebase in Limpopo, in 2004 and trained as a firefighter, but his potential was soon recognised.
He rose rapidly through the ranks: assistant crew leader, crew leader, instructor, assistant project manager and most recently, base manager at the WoF firebase in Strand.
As the road before him unfolded, Makelepe gathered friends and comrades, a reputation for leadership, compassion, and faith, an appetite for hard work, and a wonderful sense of humour.
His journey brought him down
to the Cape Winelands, while his family remained in Nelspruit, 1 600km away.
Leader, mentor, husband, father, Makelepe leaves his wife and a daughter, who will never see her father again, and comrades who are bereft and heartbroken at his untimely death.
His death on the line comes just five weeks after Cape Town Fire and Rescue Services firefighter Candice Kruger collapsed on the fireline on the slopes of Table Mountain, and died shortly thereafter.
In just six weeks, the firefighting community has lost two of its own in the war against wildfires, for a war it most certainly is.
It may pause briefly during the winter months, but as soon as the rains stop, and the humidity levels drop, and the temperatures rise, and the wind starts to blow again, the war resumes.
And the firefighters go out and do battle with The Beast to protect lives and property.
And while Wilfred Owen’s condemnation of the wars of men in Dulce et Decorum Est – dulce et decorum est pro patria mori (It is sweet and right to die for your country) – is ever apt, this war is worth fighting.
In the words of WoF managing director, Trevor Abrhams, when he paid tribute to Makelepe: “There is no higher calling than giving up one’s
life in service of the community.”
RIP Makelepe Cedric Seokoma.
Norman McFarlane is a volunteer wildland firefighter at Volunteer Wildfire Services Jonkershoek Firebase.