His face and hands are covered with scar tissue, a permanent reminder of the heroism that nearly cost him his life. Thanks to him, a child is still alive today – but he will forever mourn the fact he couldn’t save the toddler’s baby brother.
Zikhaya Sithole (37), a self-employed labourer, was walking with a friend on his way home from a spaza shop in Orange Farm, Johannesburg, when he heard a commotion near his house.
“I saw a crowd of people and heard women screaming from a yard about four houses away from mine,” he recounts.
As he and his friend got closer, they saw smoke billowing from a shack – and the screams of a woman chilled him to the bone.
“My children, my children!” she cried. “Please, help my children!”
Zikhaya had often seen the woman’s children, boys aged one and two, playing in front of their home and knew he had to do something.
Without thinking, he plunged into the smoke and flame-filled structure and headed for the terrified toddlers.
“I could hardly see because of the smoke, so I had to feel my way around the structure,” he tells YOU. “But I could hear the children screaming so I made my way towards them.
“Just as I managed to get a hold of the two-year-old on the bed, the entire structure started to cave in. I managed to reach the door just as the shack collapsed but thankfully I managed to manoeuvre the door open with my foot so we could get out.”
He gave the toddler to his mother and tried to get back into the shack to save the one-year-old, but the heat and flames made it impossible.
Zikhaya stumbled home to his partner, Mapaseka Monoreng (35), who was horrified to see his burnt face and hands.
“I didn’t even realise I was burnt,” he says. “All I thought about was getting to those kids.”
His wounds were bad though and he was admitted to Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital.
“After I’d been admitted I was told the one-year-old didn’t make it. I was so heartbroken,” he says.
Zikhaya spent a month in hospital having treatment for his burns and is now trying to piece his life back together.
The mother of the children, who asked not to be named, has since moved out of the area but she returned to thank Zikhaya for his heroic efforts.
Despite his injuries, he has no regrets about plunging into that burning shack and would do it all over again if he could.
“I saved a child,” he says. “I only wish I could have saved them both.”