The Year in Review, 2023: Usindiso fire exposes issue of hijacked buildings in Joburg

President Cyril Ramaphosa visited the Usindiso shelter for women and children, the building that was gutted by fire and left more than 70 people dead. File Picture: Itumeleng English / Independent Newspapers

President Cyril Ramaphosa visited the Usindiso shelter for women and children, the building that was gutted by fire and left more than 70 people dead. File Picture: Itumeleng English / Independent Newspapers

Published Dec 23, 2023


A deadly fire that ripped through the Usindiso Building in Marshalltown, claiming 77 lives, has exposed the problem of hijacked buildings in the City of Joburg.

The Usindiso Building was a council-owned building that was leased to the Gauteng Department of Social Development, which used it as a shelter for abused women and children before it was hijacked about a decade ago.

Once hijacked, the building was under the control of unknown persons who collected rent from dwellers who stayed in small, partitioned rooms.

One official described the arrangement as similar to an informal settlement inside a formal dwelling at the time of the fire.


The deadly tragedy is now the subject of a Commission of Inquiry headed by retired Constitutional Court Justice Sisi Khampepe, who is supported by advocates Thulani Makhubela and Vuyelwa Mathilda Mabena.

The inquiry was instituted by Gauteng Premier Panyaza Lesufi.

The first phase of the inquiry would determine the cause of the fire and also investigate the prevalence of hijacked buildings in the Johannesburg Central Business District being abandoned by their owners and taken over by criminal syndicates or other groups.They are leased out to and populated with tenants who do not have the means to afford other forms of housing, and live without basic services such as water, electricity, refuse removal and sanitation.

The second phase would investigate who was liable for the deaths and injuries, and they would make recommendations for the steps to be taken.

The inquiry is under way, and calls for Commissioner Makhubela to recuse himself amid allegations that he is impartial due to the fact that he allegedly expressed anti-migrant sentiment on his social media posts, has succeeded.

The non-profit Social Economic Rights Institute (SERI) successfully argued that retaining Makhubela would undermine the commission’s work, its findings, and recommendations, as he was associated with Operation Dudula and Put South Africans First, who were organisations accused of espousing anti-foreigner sentiment.

“It is my understanding that Commissioner Makhubela wants to assist victims of the fire who are South African citizens only. I do not understand why he would want to help South African citizens only when the residents of Usindiso were all victims of the fire,” said former Usindiso resident, Tanzanian Ayubu Miuza.

On December 20, Justice Khampepe announced that she was removing Makhubela as a commissioner.


At the time of the August fire, most political parties in the City of Joburg blamed non-profit organisations such as SERI for the deadly building fire.

But SERI fired back at officials, saying the fire at the building had to be blamed on the city.

“Unfortunately, the fire at the Usindiso shelter is an example of how the city deals with its shelters, which are occupied by many of Johannesburg’s poorest and most vulnerable residents.

“The conditions of the shelters and transitional housing need to be urgently improved, and people living in them need access to basic services.

“SERI has never litigated against the City of Johannesburg in relation to this building; our only involvement in the building related to the temporary placement of two of our clients by the City of Johannesburg following their displacement by a fire in September 2014.

“However, SERI has consistently tried to engage the City to improve conditions in its shelters, to no avail.

“To shift the blame to NGOs, as people speaking for the City are currently doing, speaks to the municipality’s unwillingness to take responsibility for the inner city housing crisis.

“Despite these tactics, and the City’s ongoing recalcitrance, SERI remains determined in defending the rights of vulnerable people who face illegal evictions in the City of Johannesburg at the hands of either the state or private owners with no alternative accommodation and in direct contravention of the rights entrenched in the Constitution.

“SERI urges the City to take this unfortunate event as a wake-up call to proactively improve the conditions of in the buildings it owns and manages, as well as other abandoned buildings in order to prevent future loss of life,” they said.

The inquiry will resume in January.

Meanwhile, IOL Property reported that buildings that were not well managed or maintained were easy targets for building hijackers who used intimidation and force to take control.

Residents were urged to suss out operations in the area before moving in, while also sussing those who are in charge.

Meanwhile, Angela Rivers, the chairperson of the Joburg Property Owners and Managers Association, said there were over 50 hijacked buildings in the Joburg Inner City that they knew about.

The City of Johannesburg had a legislated problem buildings by-law, which allowed them to evict people in such buildings, but the challenge was finding alternative accommodation for those in condemned buildings, which by-law, was also the municipality’s responsibility.

There have been calls for the public and private sector to work together in addressing this problem. Additionally, hijacked buildings have been blamed for a significant portion of the over R10 billion unpaid electricity bills owed by Joburg residents to City Power.

In one incident in September, residents from a hijacked building successfully threatened and halted technicians from disconnecting illegally connected electricity at an inner city building.

IOL News