GroundUp, Kimberly Mutandiro
Adam Time, an immigrant from Malawi, says he will never forget the words his neighbors shouted when he was suddenly startled awake around 01:00 on Thursday morning.
His place of residence on the second floor of 80 Albert Street, in the center of Johannesburg, where he and his wife, Joyce Arafat, lived for the past year, was already filled with smoke.
“I immediately woke up Joyce and our baby, but I couldn’t get the apartment door open.”
That’s when he asked Joyce to give him their baby so he could pass him through the window to safety to someone who was already on the ground.
Then he jumped out and asked his wife to follow him, but she did not come.
“I remember Joyce staring anxiously out the window.” However, that was the last time he saw his wife.
Exactly how the logistics worked to get from the second floor to the ground is unclear. To expect memory to be accurate and descriptions coherent in the wake of these tragic events is unrealistic.
“I tried to go back to find her, but the entrance to the building was on fire and people were stopping me from going through,” Time said with tears in his eyes.
“All of us should have jumped out of the window together.”
He says he remembers shouting to his wife up to the window, “but there was no sign of her”.
Time later that day saw the lifeless bodies of people who died in the fire being recovered from the building.
“I still don’t know if my wife is alive and in the hospital or if she is dead and her body has been found.”
Omar Arafat, Joyce’s brother who came from Malawi to join Joyce at the end of 2022, blames himself for not being able to save his sister.
“I tried to find her before I escaped from the building through a third floor window.
“Everything happened so quickly.
“I only regained consciousness a few hours later,” says Arafat. He held a photo of her in his hands.
The building, where mainly immigrants from Malawi, Zimbabwe and Tanzania live, but also houses a few South Africans, was at one point a shelter for abused women and children.
However, it was hijacked in 2021. Many women and children who lived there fled to nearby and safer buildings, some of the former residents said.
The building then reportedly turned into a crime center where fights were a regular occurrence. According to several residents, they were asked to leave the building during ActionSA leader Herman Mashaba’s time as mayor of Johannesburg. However, they stayed and paid rent of between R800 and R1 600 per month to the hijackers.
Some families shared rooms to ease the burden. While chaos was evident in the building, residents tried to maintain peace in their homes.
Another survivor, Atoo Makanjira, also from Malawi, says he has lived in the building for four years. He woke up in the early hours of the morning but couldn’t get through the entrance. However, he also managed to escape through a first floor window.
Four of his roommates – his friends – are still missing. They shared a room to help pay the rent of R1 600.
“I got hurt when I jumped to the ground. In all the years we have lived in the building, nothing like this has ever happened here,” says Makanjira.
Poshia Sithole, from Ruwa in Zimbabwe, says she came looking for her friends, Swaga and Blessing, but could not find them anywhere. She moved out of the building in early August.
Sithole says while she lived in the building, there were gang members and drug dealing – that’s why she left.
“Everything I had was destroyed in the fire, I have nothing left,” said Sam Mandebvu, also from Zimbabwe.
Miriam Mutasa says she was at work when she heard the building was on fire. She quickly ran home and was lucky enough to save her two children’s lives.
Moreboys Munetsi of Great Hope, an organization that provides burial and repatriation services for Zimbabweans, says more than ten Zimbabweans have already been reported missing.
The organization says they will donate food, provide the survivors with temporary accommodation and help Zimbabweans who died in the fire with a funeral at home (Zimbabwe).
“We are saddened by the situation and appeal to Zimbabweans to reach out and help our fellow human beings in need.
“We deal with many cases of Zimbabweans dying under sad circumstances. There are five bodies of Zimbabwean women that were recovered at the end of 2022, but which have not yet been identified,” says Munetsi.