Maverick Citizen

GAS EXPLOSION REPERCUSSIONS

Fear and trauma plus rising costs slow down business for Lilian Ngoyi St residents

Fear and trauma plus rising costs slow down business for Lilian Ngoyi St residents
Johannesburg Water employees at work on 25 July 2023 after the 19 July gas explosion. (Photo: Leon Sadiki)

While the City of Johannesburg is still investigating the cause of the devastating gas explosion that shook the inner city 12 days ago and killed one person, residents who work or run businesses in the area remain shaken and fearful as they weigh up the costs.

“He was coming back from buying his meal and then faced this accident,” said Moses Milinyu, Allied Jozi Housing Apartments resident in Lilian Ngoyi (previously Bree Street), about Malawian Joseph Dumisane, who died during the Johannesburg CBD explosion last Wednesday 19 July.

A gas pipeline explosion, whose source remains unknown, led to the collapse of parts of Lilian Ngoyi Street, one of the main routes used by taxis transporting people from different areas of Johannesburg. Gauteng Premier Panyaza Lesufi confirmed that more than 30 vehicles, mostly minibus taxis, were damaged. This was coupled with 48 people incurring injuries.

When the explosion happened, Milinyu said “we tried to call him but at that particular time, his phone was out of reach”. The next day when Milinyu tried calling him again, it was a police officer who picked up the call and said, “Your brother has died,” according to Milinyu, a Malawian national who is from the same town of Chikwawa as the deceased.

Milinyu was a street hawker on Lilian Ngoyi and Loveday streets, selling shoes. This meant he had bought meals from food establishments in the area where he worked. “By the time he was coming back [from buying food], it is when the accident started,” explained Milinyu. Reporting by News24 mentions that he “died after a taxi fell on him and trapped him”.

“It was very sad, but now I am trying to make things better,” said Milinyu. “I am just trying to forget, but now I am better because the electricity is back.” 

The explosion led to an absence of electricity and water, as authorities were assessing both sets of networks before restoring supply, affecting the stretched budgets of residents and businesses.

Melusi Mpofu, a security guard at Allied Jozi Housing Apartments, said the ordeal left him shocked and fearful of it possibly happening again. A set of emotions he was still trying to pacify on Tuesday, 25 July, a week after the explosion.

He said he found it helpful to talk about the accident to residents in the building, which occurred while he was working at Allied, two blocks from his residence at the corner of Wanderers and De Villiers Streets.

A Pep store on the corner of Lilian Ngoyi and Harrison remained closed on 25 July, a week after the explosion. (Photo: Gaby Ndongo)

Personal budgets taking strain

Zimbabwean national Ester Wadi, a street vendor at the corner of Lilian Ngoyi and Harrison, was also present during the explosion. She is processing the event by trying her best to relax at home, although she said it is challenging at times. 

“You can’t even relax because the more you come here [corner of Lilian Ngoyi and Harrison], the more you are reminded of what happened. But you need to sell things to survive,” she said. “Until now, my heart is not settled. It was too much.” The situation is made worse by the dwindling numbers of customers visiting her spot as “people are still scared”.

Ester Wadi is a street vendor who witnessed the Bree Street explosion on 19 July 2023. (Photo: Leon Sadiki)

The lack of water and electricity since Wednesday, 19 July at her residence in Plein, a street parallel to Lilian Ngoyi, caused Wadi to send her children to her sister in Randburg. “It was very difficult because we carried water from the first floor until the seventh floor,” said the Zimbabwean. 

She also managed to boil some of the meat stored in her fridge, but most of it got spoiled. Wadi bought takeaways for the first three days after the explosion, and then started using a gas stove to cook food. “When you are used to cooking at home and also eating warm food, it is difficult; it is difficult,” she complained.

Apart from the storage of meat and other food, she relied on a towel and cold water during the chilly days following the explosion, to remain clean. Wadi added: “We are experiencing a new life. We are trying a new life.”

The supply of water and electricity had been restored when Daily Maverick interviewed Milinyu, Mpofu and Wadi on Tuesday, during mid to late afternoon.

Sewels Manʼs Shop, on the corner of Lilian Ngoyi and Harrison, on 25 July 2023. The owner says the shop experienced a decrease in income in the aftermath of the explosion. (Photo: Leon Sadiki)

Blockaded streets, business downturns

The CBD was operational as usual, except for the blockaded area between the corners of Lilian Ngoyi and Loveday, to Lilian Ngoyi and Kruis. Most of those stores remained closed. Small businesses, selling items such as clothing, were up and running. Although there was no vehicle access, people were using pavements to rapidly make their way into Lilian Ngoyi’s buildings or to surrounding streets.

The explosion scene raised fears of the unknown, something quickly felt when interacting with residents, street vendors, security guards and business owners who were present during the explosion, or who had to attend to matters in the area.

Milinyu’s situation was similar to that of Wadi: “I was not bathing; I was just wiping myself,” he said. “I was just going outside to buy food and you know, sometimes, I couldn’t manage to buy food for the morning, afternoon, and the night.” His food costs increased as a result. “And you know, buying [takeaways] is more expensive than cooking the food yourself.”

A local business owner said he only managed to open their doors on Monday, so did not generate an income from Thursday to Saturday. The number of customers visiting his mans shop for clothing and footwear were limited because Lilian Ngoyi and Harrison, the main access roads to the store, have been closed from all sides.

His man’s shop also experienced an increase in operating costs. A generator was running for one and a half days, when electricity was only restored at noon on Tuesday. With the missed opportunity to generate income over three days, the business owner said he was left “out of pocket”.

“The impact of the explosion to the business can only be fully assessed after one week, for example,” said the shop owner, who said it may take several months to address the effects of this explosion. He called for support for the affected businesses.

A notice on the Pep store entrance, located on the corner of Lilian Ngoyi and Harrison on 25 July 2023. (Photo: Gaby Ndongo)

Avoid scapegoating

Apart from support for businesses in the area, the immediate removal of the homeless from the area is a concern for Kopanang Africa Against Xenophobia (Kaax), a coalition of civil society organisations championing human rights and working against xenophobia. The organisation said they “hope that this is not authorities using the situation as an excuse to displace already vulnerable people,” read a statement from Kaax.

Against this backdrop, the coalition called on “human rights monitors to ensure the fair treatment and safety of those living in the affected buildings, or on the streets as well as temporary alternative accommodation for those who are prohibited from going to their homes,” in the statement. It said vulnerable groups should receive access to essential services such as counselling for the trauma and loss caused by the explosion.

Kaax also discouraged any form of scapegoating of non-nationals and illegal mining for last Wednesday’s explosion, emphasising the complexity of a situation that does not require “hasty assumptions” but instead an “outcome of the full and ongoing investigation”.

Read more in Daily Maverick: City of Joburg confirms gas caused deadly explosion, but can’t say from where

Johannesburg Water employees continue to work on the effects of the  explosion on 25 July 2023. (Photo: Leon Sadiki)

Illegal mining operations are known to be conducted in and around the Johannesburg CBD. These were mentioned as possible causes, by police on the scene. Those running mining operations are referred to as zama-zamas and in the past months, media coverage suggested that some are conducted by Lesotho nationals at closed gold mines. 

“Blaming migrants and vulnerable communities without concrete evidence is detrimental and perpetuates division within our society,” said Kaax coordinating committee member Julekha Latib.

The coalition’s statement further highlights the need for collaboration and responsible communication among social partners to assist the affected communities. Those, in addition to the implementation of proper management and cautionary measures at the site, to prevent people from getting harmed by open holes and exposed pipes.

Dale McKinley, spokesperson for Kaax, said they worry about harassment from some law enforcement officials being directed towards non-nationals, and the lack of support that businesses owned by migrants will receive in the wake of the accident. 

“What we have been told on numerous occasions since the explosion is that small-scale business people and migrants are not being assisted. They have been told that they can’t open [shop] while other stores are being opened,” McKinley added. DM

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