After one of the worst residential fires in South Africa’s history, little remains of the overcrowded building in Johannesburg that sheltered some 200 Africans. Some called it a death trap and a disaster waiting to happen.
The fire that began shortly after 1 a.m. on Aug. 31, trapped residents in the darkness, unable to pry open the locked security gates on each floor. A sealed gate on the ground floor prevented at least some of the victims from escaping and there were no proper fire escapes.
While the city-owned building at 80 Albert St. housed some 200 families, there was no formal electric service. People relied on small fires for cooking, heat and light and sometimes on dangerous electrical hookups.
The building had effectively been abandoned by authorities, said media reports, and had become home to poor people desperately seeking some form of accommodation in the rundown Johannesburg central business district. Some 76 apartment dwellers died in the predawn blaze, including 12 children, authorities said.
Homeless South Africans, poor foreign migrants and others who found themselves marginalized in a city often referred to as Africa’s richest but with deep social problems, inhabited the downtown building.
Senior city officials conceded they had been aware of problems at the building since at least 2019.
“This has been a long time coming and it will keep happening until the city wakes up. It’s devastating,” said Angela Rivers, general manager of the Johannesburg Property Owners and Managers Association. Rivers said that numerous government departments were aware of the appalling conditions of “hijacked” (taken over) buildings across the city center, but “they don’t take it seriously.”
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa visiting the scene of the fire, put himself among the poor of downtown Johannesburg and tried to reassure them.
“We are a caring government,” he said. “It may fall short, but the determination to care for the people of South Africa is a priority.”
But some found the promises coming from the government of the ruling African National Congress party which led South Africa out of apartheid and has been in power since the first democratic elections in 1994, wearing thin.
Around 1.2 million people in the province don’t have housing, officials said, with much of the crisis playing out in Johannesburg.
A statement from the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) that appeared on X/Twitter linked the fire to the “direct outcome of years of permitting dilapidated structures to exist within Johannesburg, devoid of adequate upkeep or any form of vigilant oversight.
“The problem of hijacked and dilapidated buildings requires the provision of temporary housing for residents in such structures, as government seeks to find and establish permanent low-cost housing alternatives.”
The police have opened a criminal case, although it was unclear who might face any charges over the deaths as no official authority ran the building.
President Ramaphosa blamed the tragedy in part on “criminal elements” who had taken over the building and charged people to live there.
But the focus on the issue only after so many people were killed angered some in the city.
“We have seen the president calling this incident tragic,” said Herman Mashaba, a former mayor of Johannesburg and now the leader of an opposition political party. “What do you mean tragic? You’ve been aware of this. We have seen the decay of this city over 25 years. It’s not something that just happened overnight.”
The building was one of 57 hijacked buildings that the Johannesburg Property Owners and Managers Association had identified and repeatedly lobbied the City to act on.
City activist Maurice Smithers called the five-story brick property on Albert Street an iconic building with history going back to the Apartheid era.
“It was the Albert Street Pass Office which determined which Black South Africans could live and work in Johannesburg. Its transformation from a place of oppression and despair to one of hope when it was turned into a women’s shelter and clinic was a significant symbolic moment.
So, the failure by the City to maintain the building as a heritage site and to support the NGO which was there (Usindiso Ministries, which ran the shelter) is equal to its failure to ensure the building complied with all relevant laws and bylaws,” said Smithers.
“[It has] instead effectively turned a blind eye to its hijacking and deterioration into a place of death.”
Urgent humanitarian aid is desperately needed. Organizations such as Gift of the Givers, the Salvation Army and the Hope SA Foundation are waiting for the go-ahead from the City of Johannesburg. (GIN)