Is SA ‘fiddling’ while Johannesburg is burning?

A fire at a hijacked building in Johannesburg’s CBD claimed the lives of 76 people. Picture: Timothy Bernard/African news Agency (ANA)

A fire at a hijacked building in Johannesburg’s CBD claimed the lives of 76 people. Picture: Timothy Bernard/African news Agency (ANA)

Published Sep 4, 2023


By Professor Hope Magidimisha-Chipungu

Cities are no mythical phoenix, said to set themselves ablaze before rising anew from their own ashes; unfortunately, recent events in the city of Johannesburg seem to deviate from this notion.

If it is not brazen heinous criminality in broad daylight, it is a gas explosion in the middle of the city or an entire apartment block razed down by flames as we hopelessly await another tragedy to befall us.

Clearly, something is going terribly wrong. The once ‘city of gold’ is now the city of despair. Are we not fiddling while Johannesburg is burning?

In the wake of the tragic incident that engulfed an entire apartment block in Johannesburg, claiming the lives of 76 people, we are once again confronted with the harsh reality of the inner-city housing crisis that has plagued our vibrant South African cities for years.

This devastating incident, coupled with the recent explosion on the streets caused by methane gas, serves as a grim reminder of the challenges that persist in the heart of Johannesburg.

The charred remnants of the apartment block in Johannesburg’s inner city reveal more than just the wreckage of a building; they lay bare the structural and social issues that have contributed to this catastrophic event.

The housing crisis in Johannesburg is a multifaceted problem that is deeply intertwined with land inequality and the unaffordability of rentals for the city’s most vulnerable residents.

Inequality, particularly on land, has been a long-standing issue in South Africa’s history, stemming from the legacy of apartheid. In the post-apartheid era, efforts were made to address this imbalance through land reform, but progress has been slow and insufficient.

The situation in Johannesburg’s inner city is a stark example of how land ownership disparities persist. According to media reports, the city is home to more than 600 derelict and illegally occupied structures, with only about 30 of them being privately owned. This stark contrast in land ownership creates a breeding ground for instability and desperation.

Rising rental prices further compound the housing crisis in Johannesburg. For the majority of the city’s population, especially the poor, rentals are beyond their financial reach. This leaves many with no choice but to occupy unsafe and often illegal buildings, as they struggle to find affordable and adequate shelter.

The tragic fire that claimed so many lives is a horrifying consequence of this desperate situation, where people are forced into perilous living conditions due to a lack of affordable alternatives.

One of the most glaring issues in addressing the Johannesburg inner-city housing crisis is the government’s reactionary approach. The government should be proactive in tackling this issue, but all too often, it responds only after a tragedy has occurred. This incident in the apartment block is a prime example of how government inaction can have devastating consequences. Rather than waiting for disasters to strike, the government must take swift and comprehensive measures to address the root causes of the housing crisis.

In addition to the housing crisis, the governance challenges in the city of Johannesburg pose significant obstacles to effectively deal with pressing issues in the city. The frequent changes in city leadership, particularly the mayoral positions, demand a substantial amount of time and resources that could otherwise be invested in addressing critical issues like housing.

The recurring changes in leadership can disrupt the continuity of policies and development initiatives. Each new administration may come with different priorities, which can result in inconsistent approaches to urban planning. As a result, essential projects aimed at alleviating the housing crisis may be delayed, re-evaluated, or abandoned altogether, leading to a lack of progress and prolonged suffering for the city’s vulnerable residents.

The frequent shifts in leadership can also undermine trust in the government’s ability to effectively address pressing issues, further complicating efforts to find sustainable solutions to them.

Immediate steps to effectively address Johannesburg’s housing crisis in its inner city should include implementing a bottom-up urban regeneration strategy. This involves community-led redevelopment; participatory urban design; incentivising and prioritizing affordable housing initiatives; cracking down on illegally occupied structures; developing a clear framework for legalising and regulating informal settlements and occupancies, ensuring that landlords adhere to safety regulations; and stabilisation of the political leadership structure to ensure continuity among administrations.

It’s essential to engage all stakeholders, from residents to government agencies and non-profit organizations, to collaboratively create a more equitable and inclusive urban landscape. Civil society, housing advocates, and officials at all levels of government must come together to find innovative and sustainable solutions to the Johannesburg inner-city housing crisis. It is not just a matter of bricks and mortar, it’s a matter of human dignity and social justice.

As we mourn the loss of 76 lives in the apartment block blaze and reflect on the explosion caused by methane gas, we must use this tragedy as a catalyst for change. Johannesburg, like many urban centres in South Africa and around the world, faces complex housing challenges that demand concerted efforts to resolve.

The time for action is now, before more lives are needlessly lost and the flames of despair continue to consume our city.

* Hope Magidimisha-Chipungu is a Professor of Town and Regional Planning at UKZN.