Hundreds left homeless in SA inferno

A total of 28 people died and hundreds of homes were destroyed by a series of forest fires which have swept through parts of South Africa and Swaziland since the end of July, officials said on Thursday.

"26 deaths have been reported thus far," in South Africa alone, said a statement issued after a cabinet meeting on Wednesday.

Two people were reported dead as a result of the fire in neighbouring Swaziland.

"Over 50 000 hectares of commercial plantations (and a further 18 000 in Swaziland) and over 200 000 hectares of grazing land have been extensively damaged" by the rampaging fire, it said.

Thousands of jobs have been lost while loss of foreign revenue has also been recorded, the statement said, without giving details.

The fire raged in the rural parts of KwaZulu-Natal province and neighbouring Mpumalanga, Free State, Eastern Cape, Limpopo and Gauteng, which includes Johannesburg and Pretoria.

"These are the worst fires in the history of our country," the statement said.

A statement from KwaZulu-Natal's provincial government said thousands of pigs, sheep, cows and goats were either burnt alive or had to be put down.

An initial estimate said that around 320 homes were destroyed in KwaZulu-Natal while there was also widespread damage to property in Mpumalanga, although an exact tally had not been established.

In neighbouring Swaziland, two people were killed as a fire destroyed 80 percent of a thick pine forest, as fires crossed over from South Africa, leaving about 100 people homeless.

Heavy winds fanned the flames after an exceptionally dry winter in the north.

"We still do not know the actual cause of the fire but we suspect it might be due to the very dry weather conditions in the affected areas," said Mtholephi Mthimkhulu of KwaZulu-Natal's agriculture and environmental affairs department. - Sapa-AFP