South Africa

DANGEROUSLY DERELICT BULDINGS

Call for judicial inquiry after Joburg fire tragedy

Call for judicial inquiry after Joburg fire tragedy
Steven Faulkner, Chairperson of DEMAWUSA and Zwelinzima Vavi, Secretary General of SAFTU address the media about the recent fire at the Bank of Lisbon building in Johannesburg that claimed the lives of three firefighters. Photo: Nkateko Mabasa

The fatal fire at the Bank of Lisbon building reminded some City of Johannesburg firefighters of how they buried two colleagues in 2015 after another blaze in the Johannesburg CBD. And now, rather than waiting for another disaster to befall their workmates, trade union federation Saftu is calling for a judicial inquiry into negligence over safety standards and lack of resources.

It took three days, with the help of emergency responders from Tshwane, Ekurhuleni, OR Tambo and the military to finally extinguish the fire that broke out at the Bank of Lisbon building in the Johannesburg CBD on 5 September.

It was only when three firefighters from the City of Johannesburg had died in the blaze that the Johannesburg Emergency Management Services realised that the task was more than they could handle and reinforcements were called.

According to the Democratic Municipal and Allied Workers Union of South Africa (Demawusa) which represents the firefighters, and the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu), government officials had neglected both building safety standards and deteriorating conditions at the fire station. This meant the first responding firefighters were ill-prepared for what awaited them at the building.

We are very worried at how the government is not taking the firefighter profession seriously,” said Freddy Munye, chairperson of the Fire Professions Council of South Africa.

All we are saying is give us the tools to serve the community,” said Bonginkosi Dlangamandla, a firefighter and Demawusa member.

In the absence of that what then do you expect from the firefighters?”

We have come to the decision that someone has to pay for the loss of life, for the pain, for loss of income, for trauma and for all that the firefighters and workers are subjected to in the [work] environment,” continued Zwelinzima Vavi, Secretary-General of Saftu.

We demand a full judicial commission of inquiry, hopefully to be chaired by a judge, with the power to summon all those who have information to determine what happened on that fateful day,” he said.

According to the union, the firefighters faced challenges they were not supposed to have been subjected to.

When they reached the 23rd floor of the building, it became apparent that there were no working hose reels and fire extinguishers in the building. And to their further surprise, the landing valves on each floor did not have water for them to use.

This forced them to use the fire hydrants on the street, which they discovered did not have enough pressure for the water to reach high up, where the fire was. Without the proper equipment to fight it, the fire spread to the floors below.

As the fire continued it became blatantly obvious that the equipment available to the fire fighting teams was woefully inadequate,”said Steven Faulkner, Chairperson of Demawusa.

In 2015, two firefighters, Dan Zwane and Michael Letsosa, died in the Nedbank Mall in Albertina Sisulu Street in the Joburg CBD.

Soon after there were revelations of poor working conditions and maladministration brought to light by Johannesburg firefighters. At the time firefighters revealed that the city had been misleading the public about conditions of the fire station.

Soon after this group of firefighters, labelled as disgruntled employees, was dismissed, but later reinstated.

We are still bleeding inside. In 2015 they called us disgruntled firefighters,” said Demawusa’s Terrence Kgaffe.

MEC for Infrastructure and Development Jacob Mamabolo said that the Bank of Lisbon building — the scene of the most recent fire — was only 21% compliant with health and safety standards.

This confession, later repeated by Gauteng Premier David Makhura, has raised suspicions at the two unions.

What was the purpose of the MEC making such a (quick) statement? Was this a brazen attempt to head off criticism of the ANC-led provincial government? Was this an attempt to shift the blame on to others?” asked Faulkner.

Demawusa hopes the judicial inquiry will provide information regarding the state of the emergency services department and will also provide an opportunity to review fire services in the region. DM

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