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Johannesburg CBD: Speaker Colleen Makhubele says NGOs block efforts to remove people from hijacked buildings

Published Aug 31, 2023


City of Joburg’s Council Speaker Colleen Makhubele has visited the site where more than 70 people died during an inferno at a hijacked building in downtown Johannesburg on Thursday morning.

Makhubele said the scourge of hijacked buildings across central Joburg, illegally occupied continues to be a headache for the City as several non-governmental organisations stand with the illegal dwellers.

“I am sure you saw at some point MMC Kenny Kunene (as acting Joburg mayor that time) was dealing with the issue. He got a lot of backlash and he was taken to court for dealing with the unsafe, hijacked city that is non-compliant,” Makhubele told journalists outside the building.

“That is what I am saying, there are some NGOs that are hellbent on preventing the city from dealing with this. It needs decisive action and there will be casualties, but let there be no death,” she said.

“If we succumb to pressure because we are taken to court, there are court orders, we cannot move etc, then something like this happens.”

She said the city will assist the affected families, including with burial costs.

While the death toll from the inferno which gutted the hijacked building in the Joburg CBD on Thursday continues to escalate, City of Johannesburg’s Emergency Management Services (EMS) staff were faced with the sordid reality of carrying charred bodies out of the building.

“It is a sad day indeed in the City of Johannesburg,” Joburg EMS spokesperson Robert Mulaudzi said, speaking to broadcaster Newzroom Afrika at the scene.

Before 11am on Thursday, the revised death toll showed that at least 73 bodies have been removed from the gutted building. One of the deceased people is a toddler.

More than 60 people died in Joburg CBD on Thursday when a fire engulfed a hijacked building. Picture: Timothy Bernard / African News Agency (ANA)

Mulaudzi said in his decades of serving in the emergency service, he had not seen such a harrowing scene.

He said the five-storey building was heavily partitioned inside, which might have made an escape difficult for residents fleeing the flames.

Mulaudzi said maneuvering was also very difficult for EMS officials.

“The building is a hijacked building. It is actually an informal settlement inside a building. So there is a lot of debris which we have to go through to make sure that there is not any other bodies which might still be trapped inside the building,” he said.

Mulaudzi said from outside, the buildings looks formal, but there are countless partitions “like shacks” inside the densely-populated building which was occupied illegally.

“From the first floor to the fifth floor, it is an informal area, hence you find the intensity of the fire. There is also the issues of the integrity of the building, it had been abandoned for so long, we have to exercise caution as we do this search and recovery operation,” he said.

Last month, at least one people died in a massive explosion which rocked the Joburg CBD, while 41 other people were injured.