Devastating Charlotte Maxeke hospital fire was an act of arson — police forensic report
The fire led to the closure of Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital for many months and caused huge disruption to the provision of healthcare services in Gauteng. Eighteen months later the hospital is still not fully functional and its future is uncertain.
Maverick Citizen has obtained a copy of a SAPS forensic report that shows that arson was the cause of the fire at Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital (CMJAH) on 16 April 2021. The report, by a senior forensic investigator, recommended further investigation by the SAPS. A year later it seems that little more has happened.
The fire led to the closure of CMJAH for many months and caused huge disruption to the provision of healthcare services in Gauteng. Eighteen months later, the hospital is still not fully functional and its future is uncertain.
In the aftermath of the fire, patients have lost their lives, doctors have given up and resigned and costs have run into hundreds of millions of rands. An inventory shows that medical goods worth R40-million were in the storeroom where the fire took place, as well as a large amount of PPE obtained to protect health workers from Covid-19.
All were destroyed.
‘Accidental causes excluded’ — report
The report is by Captain Pravisha Ramsundar, a senior forensic fire investigator who for a decade has been part of the SAPS’s Forensic Science Laboratory, Fire Investigation: Chemistry Section, based in Pretoria.
An initial request for a forensic fire investigation was made by the investigating officer from Hillbrow SAPS and Ramsundar reports that he attended “the crime scene” on 28 April (12 days after the fire), 9 and 10 June and 6 and 9 July 2021.
A sworn affidavit setting out his findings is dated 27 August 2021. In it, Ramsundar declares that there were “no external suspicious observations” and excludes various “accidental” possibilities for the fire, including:
- Natural factors;
- Electrical or lighting malfunctions;
- A discarded cigarette; and
- Containers of a chemical (Cidex OPA solution) that several witnesses claimed had been the source of the fire. However, Ramsundar found that “the product itself does not burn”.
On this basis, Ramsundar records: “Accidental causes could be excluded as the cause of the fire.”
However, Ramsundar notes several discrepancies in what was reported by one of the CMJAH staff working in the storeroom (she is named in the report) who witnessed the outbreak of fire. He records that, in his own expert deductions as to the original site of the fire, her evidence was “inconsistent with fire dynamics, growth, development and fire behaviour”.
He concludes: “Based on inconsistent fire information received during the interviews, the misdirection of the origin of the fire, the lack of a legitimate ignition source within Area A, and the fact that the audits in the storage facility were ongoing, it is thus imperative, for the investigating officer to investigate this matter further, thus, until such time Arson classified as incendiary cannot be excluded as the cause of the fire.”
Later in the report Ramsundar records: “The ignition factor which brought the ignition source in close contact with the fuel in an oxygenated environment and thus causing a fire may have been a malicious human behaviour.”
His conclusion is: “The cause of the fire was Arson classified as Incendiary.”
Ramsundar’s affidavit was signed on 27 August 2021.
Also included in the SAPS report are affidavits from CMJAH staff who worked in the storeroom and witnessed the fire start — but strangely they were only taken in September 2021, six months after the fire.
One of the affidavits is by the deputy director for assets and inventory, who says that he was in the vicinity of the storeroom that morning “to deal with discrepancies emanated from stock-taking as the stock-taking requirement before the submission of the final stock-take report”.
When he had left the storeroom at 9am, “nothing was suspicious”.
Doctors and civil society groups have repeatedly called for updates on the investigation. However, it is not clear what has happened to the investigation since Ramsundar’s report more than a year ago. During this time the hospital has continued to be plagued by reports of corruption, sabotage and arson as a possible cause of a second fire in July 2022 that was quickly extinguished.
No official comment on arson report
Asked to comment on the report, Vuyo Mhaga, the spokesperson for Gauteng Premier David Makhura said: “The premier has not received any forensic report from SAPS. Therefore, we are not in a position to answer your questions.”
The CEO of the hospital, Gladys Bogoshi, referred our questions to the Gauteng Department of Health, which did not respond.
Although the spokesperson for the SAPS in Gauteng said: “I am doing my best to get information from the relevant department and unfortunately for now I am still struggling”, the information was not forthcoming.
Dr Aslam Dasoo, convenor of the Progressive Health Forum (PHF), which convened the Open CMJAH Now campaign, says the PHF has initiated a comprehensive Promotion of Access to Information request for information about the investigation into the causes of the fire and the damage that it caused.
Impact on healthcare
Professor Shabir Madhi, dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences at Wits University said yesterday: “It is concerning that there has been no visible progress in apprehending those who were responsible.
“Considering the fracas that has surrounded the repairs at the hospital, which is now only expected to be completed in 2027, it is difficult not to speculate that the arson is somehow linked with tender opportunities that would have arisen in the restoration of the hospital, which conservatively is estimated to cost R1.2-billion.
“In the meantime, more than a year after the fire, the hospital is still not fully functional, there remains a backlog of treating life-threatening diseases — including delays in initiating cancer treatment, healthcare workers remain despondent and training of future healthcare workers is being compromised. The impact of this immoral act on South Africans, unfortunately, impacts mainly those dependent on the public sector for healthcare.” DM/MC