With the City of Joburg facing a massive headache following a spate of fires at both private and government-owned hijacked buildings, questions are being asked about its ability to address the problem.
Recently, two people were burnt beyond recognition after a woman allegedly set a hijacked building alight, in Nugget Street in the Joburg CBD.
A 35-year-old male identified as Sizwe Cele was one of two people killed when a fire ripped through the hijacked Express Building on Sunday.
Cele and his partner were reportedly sleeping in the room adjacent to where witnesses claim, Bonisiwe Gumede allegedly started the fire by pouring paraffin at the door of her boyfriend’s room following a heated argument.
And Joburg citizens on Monday woke up to the shock confession by a 29-year-old man that he had started the fire that killed 77 people at the Usindiso Building in Marshalltown, on August 29, last year.
The man made his first appearance this week in the Johannesburg Magistrates Court following his confession, at an in-camera hearing before a Commission of Inquiry into the fire.
The DA shadow MEC of human settlements, Mervyn Cirota, said the hijacked buildings posed a major risk.
“There are now 181 hijacked buildings in Johannesburg's central business district. Many of these buildings resemble informal settlements and pose a significant risk to individuals unlawfully occupying them.
“It is disturbing to learn that less than six months after the tragic Joburg building fire that claimed the lives of 77 people and injured many, yet another fire has befallen the city. Two lives have been lost and four people have been hospitalised after a building at the intersection of Commissioner and Nugget Streets in the Johannesburg CBD caught fire in the early hours of Sunday,“ Cirota said.
The DA has urged provincial leaders and city officials to come clean on their plans to rescue the city from the crisis posed by hijacked buildings .
Cirota said, “We call upon the Gauteng Premier, Panyaza Lesufi, and the Mayor of Johannesburg, Kabelo Gwamanda, to advise what steps will be taken by them to prevent further fires and loss of life, especially as it has become clear that nothing has or is being done to safeguard the residents from these hazardous structures and conditions.”
Responding to Independent Media, city spokesperson, Nthatisi Modingoane, said it had a plan to stem the tide of hijacked buildings including collaboration with stakeholders, and enforcing the by-laws.
“The City is currently meeting with various stakeholders from the City, Provincial and National government to try and find sustainable interventions of dealing with the scourge of hijacked properties. It is essential that we bring back the rule of law in our City, and take hijacked properties back from the criminal elements such as landlords who take advantage of desperate people and house them under deplorable conditions,” Modingoane said.
Modingoane said that the perceptions that those running the city were doing nothing to stop the rot were misguided, as there had been successes as a result of the work done by the city’s Group Forensic and Investigation Services (GFIS).
“Since the establishment of Group Forensic and Investigation Services (GFIS) in 2017, the Property Hijacking and Compliance Investigation Unit received 126 cases of properties hijackings, and 116 cases have been resolved. Over 66 properties which were in the hands of hijackers were handed back to the rightful owners,” he said.
Modingoane revealed that over the years and in recent times, various operations were carried out by law enforcement agencies to rescue some of the buildings and properties, resulting in arrests.
“In 2019 Johannesburg Property Company (JPC), CRUM, Home Affairs, JMPD and GFIS conducted a blitz at the 80 Albert Street building. During the operation, two (2) South Africans who were linked to the person who was collecting rent and 143 undocumented nationals were arrested.
“The work to investigate property hijackings in the City never stopped. The City is currently dealing with 188 active cases including the cause of the latest fire (which) is currently under investigation by the South African Police Services.
“The City will await the outcome of the investigation before making further comments. The suspect linked to the Usindiso building fire who has confessed to having ignited the fire, has been arrested by the SAPS and charged for arson and several counts of murder and attempted murder, and will be appearing in court soon,” he said.
Modingoane added that the city supported the work of Commission of Inquiry into the Usindiso building fire.