SERI says Joburg building fire a ‘wake-up call’ for the City of Johannesburg, political parties point fingers at NGOs

A fire in a five-storey building in the heart of Joburg has claimed over 70 lives and more than 40 have been left injured. Picture: Timothy Bernard / African news Agency (ANA)

A fire in a five-storey building in the heart of Joburg has claimed over 70 lives and more than 40 have been left injured. Picture: Timothy Bernard / African news Agency (ANA)

Published Aug 31, 2023


The Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa (SERI), which has been blamed by several political parties in the aftermath of the Joburg building fire, which has claimed at least 73 lives, says the tragedy was a wake-up call for the City of Johannesburg leadership.

The human rights organisation has dismissed suggestions by political parties that it was to blame for blocking attempts to demolish buildings in the Joburg CBD.

Political leaders from the Democratic Alliance (DA), Patriotic Alliance (PA), Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), Congress of the People (Cope), and ActionSA have all pointed the finger at NGOs, saying they have blocked efforts by the city to rid the scourge of dilapidated and hijacked buildings in the Joburg CBD.


SERI researcher and advocacy officer Edward Molopi said the Usindiso Shelter for Women and Children was operating as a shelter for abused women and children until it was neglected by the City of Johannesburg, resulting in the building falling into disrepair and eventually being hijacked.

Molopi said the fire was 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.

"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," he said.

Molopi said the organisation would continue to fight for the poor and would defend illegal evictions that forced dwellers to be removed from buildings without alternative accommodation being provided.

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

Dwellers at the building were reportedly paying about R1,500 per month to various slum lords, staying in horrific conditions in the city-owned building.


Expanding on evictions, Molopi said if the intention was to demolish the building or evict the occupants, the City had a Constitutional responsibility to ensure they had alternative accommodation.

"There is a process that needs to be followed when evicting people. If the State says there is a building that is a safety hazard, make sure people have an alternative accommodation to go to," he said.

"No one will oppose it if the government says there is alternative accommodation," said Molopi.

Meanwhile, President Cyril Ramaphosa has spoken about the deadly Joburg CBD fire, which claimed at least 73 lives.

He had been addressing police officers at a Women's Month event, where he said he hoped the probe into the fire would prevent similar tragedies from happening again.

He said, "I would like to offer my deep condolences to the families and wish those injured a speedy recovery.

"My thoughts are with those who have lost their place of accommodation in this terrible incident.

"This is a great tragedy. Our hearts go out to every person affected by this disaster.

"This incident calls on all of us to reach out to survivors and restore people's psychological wellbeing, and offer all help possible.

“It is sad that Women's Month ends with such a tragedy.”

Joburg Mayor Kabelo Gwamanda is expected to brief the media at 4pm on developments.


City of Joburg’s Council Speaker Colleen Makhubele, who is from Cope, said:

"I am sure you saw at some point that 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.

The DA’s Gauteng leader, Solly Msimanga, said the issue of bad buildings was a ticking time bomb in the city. He said the NGOs that interdict the removal of people from unsafe buildings were now nowhere to be found.

ActionSA leader Herman Mashaba, who is a former mayor of Joburg, condemned the lack of political will to tackle the illegal occupation of buildings. He said people were living in deplorable conditions, and they were blocked from removing the occupants. He said the buildings were sites of human rights violations.

EFF spokesperson Sinawo Thambo said the City of Johannesburg Municipal Council in November 2017, through a motion, the EFF called for all dilapidated and hijacked buildings to be expropriated without compensation and be placed under the custodianship of the City, and for 10% of these buildings to be utilised for student accommodation.

"The EFF is therefore concerned by the involvement of NGOs, with no capacity to evaluate building conditions, who impede on the relocation of individuals from these deteriorating structures through questionable legal actions.

"This situation, therefore, raises suspicions about the ownership and financial-backing of these NGOs that advocate for inhabiting clearly uninhabitable buildings at any cost, even if it results in tragic loss of life, as we have witnessed," he said.

Kenny Kunene, the deputy president of the PA, who ran a campaign as acting mayor earlier this year, told Newzroom Afrika that the big challenge was the law.

"The law protects criminality; the property laws protect criminals who hijack buildings," he said.