by AKANI CHAUKE / TINTSWALO BALOYI
South Africa Bureau
JOHANNESBURG, (CAJ News) – THE death of 73 people, with the toll projected to rise, in a fire in Johannesburg is a grim reflection of the scourge of hijacked buildings and grinding poverty in South Africa.
Over 50 others have been injured during the inferno that engulfed the five-storey building in Marshalltown, in the inner city, in the early hours of Thursday.
At least 12 children, the youngest aged 18 months, are reported among those dead.
It is one of the worst such tragedies the country has suffered.
“I have never come across something like this in my over 20 years in the service,” said spokesperson of the City of Johannesburg Emergency Management Services, Robert Mulaudzi.
The ruling African National Congress (ANC) sent its condolences to the affected families.
“We urge relevant authorities to investigate the cause of this tragedy thoroughly to ensure that this tragedy does not recur,” ANC spokesperson, Mahlengi Bhengu-Motsiri said.
The main opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) also extended its condolences.
“This is a catastrophe for our nation, causing unimaginable pain and suffering to innocent people,” said John Steenhuisen, leader of the DA.
The inferno brings to the fore the lawlessness and steep inequalities that have escalated since almost three decades of independence in Africa’s most advanced albeit struggling economy.
It has emerged the building is owned by the City of Johannesburg.
However, syndicates have hijacked buildings in the inner city. Most are inhabitable, without basic services such as water and electricity. Candles were the likely cause of the fire in Marshalltown.
These buildings usually house the impoverished, unemployed and citizens doing menial jobs and cannot afford rents in proper housings.
They pay rents to these syndicates who line their pockets. Hijacked buildings have also been highlighted as dens for criminal activities.
Crackdowns by the Johannesburg Metropolitan Police Department (JMPD) have not deterred these syndicates from their illegal operations.
Former Johannesburg mayor, Herman Mashaba, said the tragedy on Thursday was a “drop in the ocean” considering the prevalence of hijacked buildings in the city.
Now an opposition leader for ActionSA, he also lamented the involvement of international human trafficking syndicates in the hijacking of these buildings.
During his tenure as mayor, from 2016, Mashaba prioritised the fight against hijacking syndicates. He however resigned from the mayoral position after differences with his party then, the DA.
Critics accused him of being xenophobic after sentiment that hijacked buildings are also “home” to foreign nationals illegally in the metropolitan city.
Mashaba refused to feel vindicated by Thursday’s tragedy.
“My deepest condolences to the victims and their families,” he commiserated.
Current mayor of Johannesburg, Kabelo Gwamanda, has established a committee to address the issue of the hijacked buildings in the central business district.
The Gauteng Provincial Government has identified some buildings where survivors will be temporarily housed.
Mbali Hlophe, the Member of the Executive Committee (MEC) for Social Development Gauteng province, said survivors will be provided with aid in the form of blankets and meals.
This is the latest tragedy to rattle Johannesburg in recent weeks.
A series of earth tremors have shook the city. Around five tremors have occurred this year, which is unprecedented.
The latest occurred on Wednesday night.
The Council for Geosciences placed the tremor, which was felt in the western parts of the city, at a magnitude of 2.7.
“Residents are urged to be safe,” Mulaudzi said.
In July, an underground blast explosion destroyed the busiest street in the inner city of Johannesburg, leaving one person dead and more than 40 injured.
“Another tragedy in Johannesburg CBD, another clear indicator of a city falling apart at the scenes,” Piers Pigou, Programme Head at the Institute of Security Studies, said of Thursday’s fire.
– CAJ News