Johannesburg - The mayor and the City of Joburg should be charged with murder for the Usindiso building fire disaster which claimed 75 lives.
General manager at the Johannesburg Property Owners and Managers Association (JPOMA), Angela Rivers, did not mince her words in attributing blame.
The gutted building, on the corner of Albert and Delvers streets in the Joburg CBD, is owned by the CoJ and early reports indicate that the blaze may have been started by a candle but no official report is available about the cause. It was once a shelter for abused women and children and even had a CoJ-run clinic on its ground floor before it was hijacked in 2019.
Rivers said the Marshalltown fire and lost lives were a direct result of the CoJ’s apathy.
“The loss of more than 70 lives is a tragedy that could have been avoided but after years of failure by the City of Johannesburg to address the scourge of building hijacking, it is a tragedy that has been waiting to happen. As representatives of most of the credible landlords in the inner city, JPOMA has been imploring the CoJ for years to resolve this criminally-driven problem. We have taken numerous officials and every sitting mayor on tours of problem spots, and yet nothing has been done,” she said.
JPOMA, which has 55 members who own apartments in various buildings, said the Usindiso building was number five on its list of most dangerous buildings and it has for 20 years been highlighting the disasters waiting to happen. JPOMA has 57 hijacked buildings in the Joburg CBD on its radar.
“In almost all cases of these hijackings, the structure of the building has been compromised and all fire-safety equipment removed,” Rivers said.
“Buildings are gutted of anything valuable, from metal fire escapes, lift equipment and stair railings, to window frames, cables and more. Utilities have been disconnected for non-payment so illegal electricity connections are set up, creating a huge fire risk.
“Water is stolen from fire hydrants, which are damaged to access the water. Flats that are equipped to house a maximum of two adults and two children are overcrowded with four or five families sharing the space.
“In some instances the interior of a building will be reduced to an open space filled with informal shacks similar to those in informal settlements, with people living on top of each other, making small fires to cook on in their shacks, having no ablution or refuse facilities,” she added.
Rivers stressed that tenants of these buildings were not criminals, but desperate people who had no other option as they did not qualify for any other form of housing.
“They are taken advantage of by criminal elements who make a business from exploiting the fact that the City does not manage its properties nor enforce the law, leaving buildings vulnerable to be forcibly taken over. Sitting tenants are forced to now pay rent over to the criminal syndicate, or move, allowing the syndicate to bring in their own tenants.
“People who have no other choice are being forced to live in environments that are not fit for human habitation, and COJ just letting it happen, while political parties jostle for power instead of making the city safe for everyone who lives and works here,” Rivers said.
And while nothing could be done to bring back the lost lives of Marshalltown, Rivers said there was much that could be done to tackle the scourge and it had to be done now to prevent such a tragedy from happening again.
“As always JPOMA and its members are available to provide inputs and expertise into an action plan, but it is COJ who has to take the reins and the responsibility and ensure that the bereaved families did not lose everything in vain,” Rivers said.
Meanwhile, as Gauteng residents are eagerly waiting for the cause of the deadly fire to be announced, political parties and civil society are urging the provincial government to do an audit of abandoned and hijacked buildings in the province.
The DA was one of the pioneers of the call, that included ActionSA through its president, Herman Mashaba. Making the call, DA Gauteng Human Settlements spokesperson Mervyn Cirota said the Gauteng Department of Human Settlements and municipalities were failing in their mandate when it came to keeping track of abandoned and hijacked buildings.
“It is believed that this building was hijacked and that a number of people were living in this building. This is a catastrophe waiting to happen and if nothing is done more lives will be lost. The reality is that many of these abandoned buildings are controlled by gangs who rent out the space. This leads to overcrowding, there are no toilets, no electricity and no water,” Cirota said.
He said the DA was demanding that the MEC for Human Settlements, Lebogang Maile, along with his counterpart, the MEC for Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (Cogta), Mzi Khumalo, and national government urgently did an audit of all the abandoned buildings in the province.
Cirota said his party was calling for a forensic audit to be conducted as it was clear that the City of Joburg had failed to clamp down on abandoned buildings being illegally occupied.
“Measures need to be put in place urgently to ensure that we do not have another disaster like this one, where a number of lives are lost,” Cirota said.
Gauteng Premier Panyaza Lesufi has vowed to set up a commission of inquiry into the fire. Lesufi made the pronouncement after accompanying President Cyril Ramaphosa to the carnage site on Thursday where they received first hand information on how the carnage unfolded which led to the biggest loss of life in the City of Joburg. The premier described it as “the worst catastrophes Gauteng has experienced in recent memory”.
Lesufi said he was gutted by the devastating fire that broke out in the early hours of Thursday in the five-storey building, killing 75 people.
Lesufi said the inquiry would also investigate the prevalence of hijacked buildings in the city.
Social Development Minister Lindiwe Zulu received much flack from the public following her utterings that apartheid was to blame for the blaze. Addressing the media at the scene yesterday, Zulu claimed apartheid laws had created the environment that sparked the disaster.
“Whether we like it or not, this is the result of apartheid that kept people apart in these conditions, and we are expected to change these conditions in 30 years. But where we have to take responsibility, we must take responsibility,” Zulu said.
Gauteng Social Development MEC Mbali Hlophe said her department identified three buildings in Johannesburg that could be used to accommodate people affected by the fire.
Last night, the Department Health spokesperson, Motalatale Modeba said 62 of the bodies are unidentifiable and only 12 have been identified so far. Eight families have claimed/identified their loved ones. The bodies are being stored at the Diepkloof Forensic Pathology Services (FPS) .
- 88 people treated at facilities
- 36 discharged
- 33 admitted
- Others were seen and immediately discharged.
Survivors of the deadly inferno were and are being treated at:
* Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital
* Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital
* Helen Joseph Hospital
* South Rand Hospital
* Tembisa Hospital
29 people who came to Diepkloof FPS
45 names were given
25 post-mortems done already
10 families from whom DNA samples were done linking to 19 of the unidentifiable people
A Gauteng Health Provincial hotline has been established for families who want to check the whereabouts of their loved ones, hospital admissions and the deceased.
* Hotline is 0800203886
* Direct line is 0113553048 / 0112415707
Counselling services are being offered on site by counsellors from GDoH, COJ and other organisations.