Jhb tragedy: DNA tests will help identify victims


The death toll from a fire that engulfed a Johannesburg building in Marshalltown has risen to 76.

That’s how Dr. Health Minister Joe Phaahla said on Friday during his visit to the victims in the Helen Joseph Hospital in Johannesburg.

Phaahla confirmed that two more people died in the hospital, a day after this five-storey building was engulfed in flames.

“We now have 76 deaths,” Phaahla told reporters after visiting some of the more than 60 people who were injured on Friday afternoon.

Authorities were still hard at work yesterday afternoon to identify the victims, whose bodies were taken to a mortuary in Soweto. Relatives of the victims waited outside the morgue to identify their loved ones.

Thembalethu Mpahlaza, the head of Gauteng forensic services, said the process would require DNA tests as most were “burnt beyond recognition”.

There were only “12 bodies that are identifiable, that can be viewed,” he told reporters outside the morgue.

Earlier in the day, police sniffer dogs combed the charred building while charity workers took blankets, clothes and other goods to more than 100 survivors who are being temporarily housed at a shelter in Johannesburg.

Illegal occupation

The fire reignited a debate about hijacked buildings and illegal occupiers, as well as the housing crisis in the country.

Illegal occupation of derelict buildings in downtown Johannesburg is widespread. After years of sanctions during the 1980s, the advent of democracy in 1994 caused many businesses to relocate to security-fenced suburbs. Many buildings in the city center were then left empty.

During his visit to the scene on Thursday, President Cyril Ramaphosa said it was “a wake-up call to start tackling the housing situation in the inner cities”.

The building is owned by the city council and is listed as a heritage site. During the apartheid era, black South Africans would go there for documents that could give them access to white areas for work.

City authorities said it was last used as a shelter for abused women, but was “entered and hijacked” towards the end of the last decade.

The police raided the building in 2019 and arrested 140 foreign nationals.

Johannesburg city manager Floyd Brink told reporters on Thursday that the police had opened a case after the raid, but “no feedback” was immediately available.

It is suspected that around 200 families lived on the premises at the time of the fire, said Brink.

Authorities estimated that more than 80 temporary dwellings (shacks) was erected inside the building. Most of those living in the building were foreigners, a resident said.

“Many of these abandoned buildings are controlled by gangs who rent out the space,” says Mervyn Cirota, DA councilor in Gauteng.

“Hijacked” buildings are overcrowded, as criminals try to get as much money as possible out of them, said Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) who studies informal settlements.

The residents often have no toilets, electricity or water.

“All metropolitan municipalities urgently need to find solutions to the hijacked building crisis in big cities,” said China Dodovu, chairman of the parliamentary committee on settlements.

South Africa, the continent’s most industrialized economy, attracts millions of migrants, mostly undocumented, from other African countries.

The country also has a shortage of social housing despite the construction of millions of houses after the advent of democracy.