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Joburg CBD Fire: The dark history of the former Central Pass Office building has not been profiled, says heritage practitioner

Firefighters using equipment to douse flames

Firefighters dousing flames at the five storey building in downtown Joburg where close to 80 people died. File Picture: Timothy Bernard / African News Agency (ANA)

Published Sep 2, 2023


The downtown Joburg CBD building which was gutted by an inferno this week, where at least 76 people lost their lives, carries considerable pieces of South African history.

Ironically, thousands of people including undocumented foreign nationals were now living in the hijacked building which in history served as the administrative premises to control movement of black people during apartheid.

Speaking to broadcaster Newzroom Afrika, Mohau Memeza, a heritage practitioner and curator at Fanakalo Tours said the historical significance of the destroyed building has not been explored in the aftermath of the fire and loss of life.

“It is unfortunate that it had to come to such a tragedy for the profile of this building to be brought to the national attention. Us, in the heritage sector, we have been working hard trying to profile the significance of this building. Listening to the media in the past three days, it has been so disheartening hearing reference to the building as just a building that got burnt without giving perspective to its historical significance,” said Memeza.

Firefighters dousing flames at the five storey building in downtown Joburg where close to 80 people died. File Picture: Timothy Bernard / African news Agency (ANA)

“The building that we are talking about is the Central Pass Office build in 1954 basically to house the Johannesburg Non-European Department Affairs, which was basically a unit tasked with regulating the control of black people in urban spaces.

“It is a very important site because you know because we have just come from commemorating our Women’s Month which we all know 20,000 women in the largest protest marched to the Union Buildings to protest against the pass laws. This was in 1956, two years after the completion of the building. You can then draw those narratives in terms of how this building is in line with a lot of our historical events. Surprisingly, here we are - it is just referred to as just a building, it is the Central Pass Office,” he said.

Earlier this week, IOL reported that Minister in the Presidency, Khumbudzo Ntshavheni had toured the building in the aftermath of the tragedy. During her visit, the minister said the building in Marshalltown is a heritage site, and the State has on many occasions tried to evict the illegal dwellers.

Minister in the Presidency, Khumbudzo Ntshavheni addressed the media after the hijacked building was destroyed by fire. Picture: Kamogelo Moichela/IOL

"The technical team of the City of Joburg is going to give you a briefing; you can ask them how many times they have gone to court on this building in particular. It is a heritage site, that is what we are informed, and they have tried to remove the people from this building," the minister told journalists at the scene.

She said efforts to rejuvenate the inner CBD of Joburg are greatly hampered by the hijacking of buildings. She added that when the State organs try to evict the illegal dwellers, the matter is taken to court by non-government organisations (NGOs) representing the occupants.

Owned by the City of Joburg, the building at 80 Albert Street, situated on the corner of Delvers Street, was officially opened in 1954 as the "Non-European Affairs Department" and served as the Central Pass Office.

During the apartheid era, the government used the building as an administrative centre to control the movement of black people in Johannesburg.

The building previously housed the Usindiso Ministries Women's Shelter before it fell into the hands of building hijacking syndicates.

According to the Heritage Portal, "the Central Pass Office was an infamous checkpoint of the influx control system under apartheid". The "Dompas" which controlled the movement of African people, were issued here.

Speaking to IOL, some of the survivors said the fire was too intense to handle and they had to jump out of their windows, while others used the corridors to escape the flames.