Former tenants of the Usindiso Building shared harrowing testimonies detailing the appalling conditions and the nightmare of the fatal fire that claimed 76 lives in August.
On Monday, a mother of three, identified as Nokwazi Cele, told the chairperson of the Commission of Inquiry into the Marshalltown fire, Justice Sisi Khampepe, that she had to leave a neglected child in the burning property in a desperate attempt to escape the fire.
Cele told the commission that on the night of the blaze, her neighbour left a one-year-old boy in her room and fled the burning building.
Cele described how she and her children escaped through a window on the second floor but cried when she remembered having left a one-year-old in the burning building.
“It was pain and confusing to jump out of the window and having to choose between my kids, who were screaming outside, and leaving this one-year-old in the room. My windows started breaking as if the building was shaking, so I left that one-year-old child there,“ she said.
Another witness, Mr Mboza, disclosed that shacks were constructed within the building, authorised by a councillor and a prominent figure seeking rental fees. Foreign nationals were allegedly targeted for rent, with the councillor benefiting from these fees.
He said when he confronted the councillor to find out about the erection of shacks, he was told not bother himself as he has his own room.
“The shacks belonged to councillor x and the rooms to someone else. Only when you say you are South African, you never paid rent, but when you tell them you are a foreigner, you were asked to pay rent. Some of these were from Zimbabwe, Mozambique and other countries... those who benefited from rental fees according to what was happening is the councillor. I asked him as a concerned resident how he would allow construction of shacks inside the building, but he told me to give other people a chance. As far as I am concerned, the councillor was one of the landlords as he allowed the construction of shacks and also collected rent, ” Mboza told the commission.
Mboza revealed that after discovering the shacks were being rented out, some tenants also began subletting their rooms.
Another witness confirmed Mboza’s testimony that the building was owned by the Johannesburg Property Company (JPC), adding that landlords preferred foreign nationals as tenants because they shared rooms and didn’t mind paying rent.
In his testimony, Kenneth Dube remembered the night of the fire, recounting how, like many others, he leaped through a window in his room and landed on his back.
“The ladies in charge always preferred foreign nationals because they always paid rent and told us that the building was owned by government, hence South Africans don’t want to pay rent at times,” he said.
The inquiry continues.