The fire in a five-storey building in Marshalltown in the heart of Johannesburg, which claimed the lives of at least 76 people, is not an isolated incident. This tragedy was merely an indication of a much bigger disaster waiting to happen in the City of Gold, should the authorities not intervene urgently.
The building on the corner of Albert Street and Delver Street was once a shelter for abused women, but is now one of more than 600 buildings in Johannesburg that have been hijacked by crime syndicates.
Hundreds of the city’s poorest residents live here in “inhumane” and life-threatening conditions.
“The hijacking of buildings and properties has reached unacceptable levels. Moreover, it is happening in front of law enforcement authorities and some big heads in the government,” claims Herman Mashaba, former mayor of Johannesburg and president of ActionSA, during an interview with RNews.
According to Calvin Rafadi, forensic investigator of Bizz Tracers, these buildings are hijacked by syndicates from the “underworld” and then rented out as accommodation to “vulnerable and desperate” people. These people cannot afford rent and have nowhere else to go.
“Homelessness and unemployment are a big problem in Johannesburg. People come to the city in search of economic opportunities,” says Rafadi.
The people live together in cramped partitions within the building, mostly without running water, electricity or even ablution facilities. In cases where services are provided, the supply has been obtained through illegal connections.
“The tenants have to pay R1 000 to R2 000 per month to stay here. The lease is done orally and the tenants mostly pay in cash. If tenants cannot pay their rent, they are summarily evicted. The hijackers print large sums of money in their pockets every month, with minimal expenses.”
According to Mashaba, the conditions are “inhumane”.
“If you want to see evil, go visit one of these buildings. The stench is overwhelming, sewage flows in the corridors, while drugs are sold freely. At night it is pitch dark, with a few candles burning. Children are raised in these conditions.
“We mourn the 76 people who died as a result of the fire, but every day thousands of these residents die slowly but surely, due to the unlivable conditions in which they find themselves.”
With the advent of democracy in 1994, many businesses moved out of the city center and into security-fenced suburbs. Many buildings in the city center were left empty as a result. Over time, we lost track of who the owners of these buildings were.
Rafadi and Mashaba say the crime syndicates target these dilapidated and abandoned buildings.
Officials initially said the fire in the Marshalltown building may have been caused by a burning candle.
“This is nonsense,” says Rafadi.
“Someone planned and started that fire. It is a general trend in the underworld that syndicates set fires in the buildings with the aim of taking over the buildings.”
Ticking time bomb
The fire has reignited a debate about hijacked buildings and illegal occupiers, as well as the housing crisis in the country.
Illegal occupation of abandoned buildings in the center of Johannesburg is a major problem, which Mashaba already tried to bring to the government’s attention between 2017 and 2019 – during his term of office as mayor. These buildings were then already declared unhealthy and unsafe.
Mashaba established a task force, called the Property Acquisition Unit, to tackle the problem, after which 44 of these buildings were returned to their rightful owners.
With his Downtown Renewal Program, Mashaba wanted to annually release the hijacked properties to the private sector to help build affordable housing for the city’s poorest and students.
With Mashaba’s retirement as mayor in 2019, 154 of the buildings were handed over to the private sector.
“A total of 14 000 housing units would be erected at a cost of R32 billion. This would have created 22,000 permanent jobs during and after construction. The process was approved and the building would have started, but no word was said about it again after my exit.”
Mashaba’s warnings about a “ticking time bomb” seem to have fallen on deaf ears.
“I was not surprised by what happened in Marshalltown. The chance that something like this will happen again is highly probable. There are buildings in the city center with conditions that are much worse than this particular building’s.”
Panyaza Lesufi, Premier of Gauteng, said last week that a commission will be appointed to investigate the occurrence of hijacked buildings in Johannesburg; what exactly caused the deadly fire in Marshalltown; and who is responsible for this tragedy.
“The issue of hijacked buildings is a crisis in Johannesburg. This requires drastic action,” Lesufi said. “A thorough intervention is needed to make sure that a disaster like the Marshalltown fire never happens again.”
Mgcini Tshwaku, MEC for public safety in Johannesburg, also says the city will soon begin to crack down on hijacked buildings and clean them up.
Eviction ‘not the answer’
Civil society organizations are criticized for defending illegal occupiers and protecting them from evictions, but the process is not that simple.
Khuselwa Dyantyi of the Socio-Economic Rights Institution (SERI), says art. 26 of the Constitution and the Act on the Prevention of Unlawful Eviction and Unlawful Occupation of Land (PIE or Plakker Act) protect residents from illegal eviction.
“According to the PIE Act, eviction orders are only granted when the city can provide alternative accommodation, as the eviction can lead to homelessness,” says Dyantyi.
Apart from the fact that the city is currently unable to provide alternative accommodation, the process of obtaining such an order also takes a long time. SERI currently has 28 eviction orders pending in court.
“According to the Constitution, everyone has the right of access to adequate housing and it is the government’s responsibility to ensure that this right is realised. The article also protects illegal occupants from arbitrary evictions and demolition of property.”
The law applies to anyone living in South Africa, whether a South African citizen or even an undocumented foreign citizen, says Dyantyi.
However, Mashaba believes that all is not lost.
“These hijacked buildings can be reclaimed to provide affordable, dignified housing for poor residents. The recovery of old, abandoned and hijacked buildings could be one of the key levers the South African government uses to get construction going again within South Africa at a time when our economy needs all the help it can get. “
He believes the solution will be to treat the hijacking or damage of property as a criminal act and those responsible for this should be sentenced to 25 years in prison, without the option of parole.
“This should serve as a warning to the building hijackers, but it will not happen as long as the ANC is in power.”