Fire in Jhb ‘apartheid’s fault’


Social Development Minister Lindiwe Zulu says apartheid must be blamed for the fire at a Johannesburg building that claimed the lives of at least 74 people – among them at least seven children.

“Whether we like it or not, it is the result of apartheid that kept people apart under these conditions and we are expected to change it within 30 years.

“But where we have to accept responsibility, we have to do it,” the minister said during a visit to the scene.

Cleanup work at the building in Marshalltown continues, with sniffer dogs deployed Friday to search for the remains of more victims. The fire broke out in the five-storey building on Thursday.

The authorities have asked family members to go to a mortuary in Soweto to identify their loved ones, while the search continues at the building.

The fire also re-opened a debate about so-called hijacked buildings: old, unused buildings that are under the control of crime syndicates that demand rent from fire-poor squatters.

Pres. Cyril Ramaphosa visited the premises on Thursday evening and said the fire was a “wake-up call” to start tackling the problem with urban housing.

“It is a great tragedy with many families whose loved ones perished in this terrible way,” Ramaphosa said during the visit.

The building belongs to the Johannesburg metro and is designated as a heritage site, reports AFP. City authorities said the building was used as a shelter for abused women, but was “taken over and hijacked” a few years ago. The police raided it in 2019 and arrested 140 foreigners. Little has changed since then.

Floyd Brink, Johannesburg city manager, said on Thursday that the police filed a case after the raid, but it is unclear what happened to it. Around 200 families are thought to live in the building and it is estimated that around 80 cabins have been erected inside.

The illegal occupation of abandoned buildings in the Johannesburg city center is not a strange phenomenon. After numerous businesses left the city center for safer areas, large buildings were often simply left empty.

“Gangs who rent out the space control many of these abandoned buildings,” says the DA’s Mervyn Cirota. “This leads to overcrowding; there are no toilet facilities, no power and no water.”

According to Cirota, the fire was a “catastrophe waiting to happen”.

“Measures must be urgently introduced to ensure we don’t have another disaster like this.”

Dr. Health Minister Joe Phaahla will visit the Helen Joseph Hospital, where many of the survivors are being treated, on Friday afternoon. The minister will be accompanied by several senior officials from the national and provincial health department.

The MEC for health in Gauteng, Nomantu Nkomo-Ralehoko, took part in a prayer session at the building on Friday. “We are here for the prayer meeting to show the families that we stand with them.

“Their pain is our pain.”