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INNER-CITY FIRE ANALYSIS

City of Joburg shuttered task team that should have cleaned up building in which 73 died

City of Joburg shuttered task team that should have cleaned up building in which 73 died
The city's Emergency Management Services at the scene of a fire in a multi-storey building in the inner city on the corner of Alberts and Delvers street on 31 August 2023 in Johannesburg, South Africa. According to media reports, 73 people have died and at least 55 others were injured in the fire disaster. (Photo: Gallo Images / Papi Morake)

Exposed: the complete list of 57 hijacked buildings in the inner city.

The City of Johannesburg mothballed a task team to clean up the 80 Albert Street building, where 73 people perished in an inner-city blaze. The building, owned by the City, is one of 57 hijacked buildings that the Johannesburg Property Owners and Managers Association (JPOMA) has identified and repeatedly lobbied the City to act on. 

Former mayor Herman Mashaba started the Problematic Properties task team as part of the anti-corruption unit called Group Forensics and Investigations Services. The unit has been near-closed by the City, and with it, the task team that had started to make progress in dealing with the worst hijacked buildings in the City. 

(See Nonkululeko Njilo’s report here)

For years, Angela Rivers, the general manager of the inner-city property owners, has lobbied to get the City to deal with the buildings that are hazardous for the people who live in them, she says.  

The 57 properties are run by syndicates who rent out space to vulnerable residents for between R600 and R1,200 per week, says Rivers. The task team began to make progress. It was a networked group including the police, the JMPD (metro police), JPOMA, Home Affairs and Social Services to clean up the buildings and to prosecute slumlords and the syndicates who now run them. 

Rivers said the syndicates are sophisticated and well organised and have morphed from the depictions in films like Jerusalema of the earliest incarnations of building hijackers who often took over buildings by gun control. Now, she says, the syndicates arrive at buildings with fraudulent title deeds and utility accounts and make residents pay them.  

This is the case at the heritage property, 80 Albert Street, which burnt at dawn and left its residents trapped. Early reports said fire escapes were locked and exits minimal. It is one of the buildings in this database of hijacked properties. 

(Naledi Sikhakhane reports here on how people had to jump with children to escape the flames.) 

Rivers said that former mayor Mpho Phalatse tried to resurrect the task team but that it stopped meeting once the opposition coalition government was elected in September 2022. At the last meeting, Rivers was ejected by the new officials who ran it, who told her: “You’re a troublemaker.” When she complained, she received an apology and a promise that she would be invited to follow-up meetings. That was in December 2022, and there have been no follow-up meetings since then.  

The City did not immediately respond to queries about the task team. These will be added if it responds. 

[The City has] effectively turned a blind eye to its hijacking and deterioration into a place of death.

At the scene, the EFF’s Dr Mgcini Tshwaku, who leads the public safety portfolio, said the City was trying to clean up hijacked buildings but was stopped by civil society (NGOs, he said).  

Civil society organisations such as the Socio-Economic Rights Institute (Seri) often represent vulnerable inner-city communities at the mercy of slumlords and aggressive City officials. The City is bound to provide alternative accommodation, but years of corruption have meant that social housing funds are not purposefully used. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Images of heartbreak, death and dying from the Johannesburg fire

City activist Maurice Smithers said that 80 Albert Street was an iconic building in Johannesburg that had now burnt down.

“It was the Albert Street Pass Office which determined which black South Africans could live and work in Joburg. Its transformation from a place of oppression and despair to one of hope when it was turned into a women’s shelter and clinic was a significant symbolic moment. So, the failure by the City to maintain the building as a heritage site and to support the NGO which was there (Usindiso Ministries, which ran the shelter) is equal to its failure to ensure the building complied with all relevant laws and by-laws. [It has] instead effectively turned a blind eye to its hijacking and deterioration into a place of death.”

Helpline

A call centre has been set up to help families locate missing people or bodies. The numbers are: 0800 203 886, 011 241 5767 and 011 355 3048. The bodies have been taken to Diepkloof mortuary and the survivors to Helen Joseph, Charlotte Maxeke, Chris Hani Baragwanath, Tembisa Provincial and South Rand hospitals. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Robert Pegg says:

    A sad story of the ever deteriorating state of local government in this country. Is this the disaster that will wake up the government to do something about public safety, or is it just another incident that will be pushed under the carpet like so many before it.

    • Steve Davidson says:

      Wouldn’t have happened in the Cape.

      • Ian Gwilt says:

        But it does happen in the Cape, squatters invade any piece of land they want.
        See the shacks under freeways and in the city centre
        Shacks om railway lines
        The local Govt prevented by law to move them on
        The one difference is that the Cape Authorities try.

        • Jane Crankshaw says:

          This is true…. The homeless pitching tents and cardboard structures wherever they can in Cape Town City centre is the beginning of what has happened in Joburg. First the Corporates move out of the buildings ( and with remote workings, this is happening faster than we think). Then the pavement people move into these empty buildings encouraging more squatters from the townships to move into the city centre. As the Ratepayers dry up, the municipality has less and less funding so employs less people who stop servicing the buildings and so it goes. Squatters/homeless/pavement people have to be nipped in the budd before it becomes an epidemic and ends in tragedy!

    • Johann Olivier says:

      Under the carpet, Mr. Pegg. It’s the way of governance in South Africa. No one to blame. No one responsible. Everyone dithering. Time passes. More catastrophes. Forgotten. Under the carpet.

      • Jimbo Smith says:

        This disaster is heading for the same carpet the ANC piles all their catastrophic failures under. Life in this country is typified by lawlessness and a Govt which simply has no clue on how to govern. We have an almost daily diet of corruption, anarchy, horrific crime, infrastructure collapses and Frogboiler is mostly silent or he stands in front of the cameras and spews forth the usual meaningless cliches and promises and who can I blame and we deny. Pathetic!!

  • vick maharaj says:

    World class African city ?!
    Well done ANC, you continue to have blood on your hands…

  • Michael Forsyth says:

    Heads need to roll here and culpable homicide charges (at the very least) to be laid against those who allowed this situation to deteriorate. The consequences were obvious.

    • Johann Olivier says:

      Mr. Forsyth. The faith you still have and clarity of thought is commendable. I fear you will be sorely disappointed.

      • emmanwaneri says:

        Very true Johann. Does Mr Forsyth live in SA, or overseas? Have any heads “rolled” over the Germiston tanker explosion in December 2022; or the Tshwane cholera epidemic: or even the Life Esidimeni tragedy where govt’s incompetence led to the needless death of patients in govt’s care? SA is a huge joke; a comedy skit run by thieves!

  • Hermann Funk says:

    We shall have to listen to 10,000 excuses yet no action.

    • Libby De Villiers says:

      We have already heard the last of it with Cyril giving us his sad faced, caring president impersonation in his father of the nation voice. He couldn’t care less and as for his underlings…!
      Shame on them.

  • Cheryl Siewierski says:

    This is horrific, and another tragic consequence of the shambles that is the farcical coalition ‘governance’ in Johannesburg. I get the idea of coalitions and proportional representation, but it’s become quite clear that the age of negotiation and compromise for the betterment of citizens is over in many parts of South Africa. These FMCG-type coalition institutions have simply become vehicles for power and one-upmanship, along with who knows how much corruption. We will never get accountability from those in charge when such instability and poor likelihood of tenure exist. Changing the system itself does not appear to be a likely option, so the only way to avoid this is to focus our votes on one particular party instead of spreading them around like inconsequential candy.

  • Bryan Bailey says:

    This why the coalition needs to win the 2024 elections as the incompetent ANC cannot do anything right.

  • Wayne Ashbury Ashbury says:

    Nothing will change. Ramaphosa and his government misfits will say some scripted things, blah, blah. Story will subside and then it’s business as usual. We are living in anarchy

  • Les Thorpe says:

    No doubt lots of talk and promises and whatever accompanied by statements about “the full might of the law” and “leaving no stone unturned”, . . . then nothing will happen and we move on to the next ANC-inspired tragedy.

  • Reinhardt Biermann says:

    I don’t understand why an enquiry is necessary. It is a city property, owned by the city, so this is due to the city council’s neglect ? It is a national disaster for which the city mgmt needs to be held accountable for…

  • Smudger Smiff says:

    Shame hangs heavily on South Africa for doing nothing to prevent this tragedy.
    And when nothing but mealy-mouthed words now flow from those ultimately responsible, there is yet more shame to come.

  • Marcela Reynoso says:

    Human rights, constitutional rights,
    We are supposed to have the right of having a roof over our heads as well of the right of life
    Here is one example of one right opposite the other
    We all know that eviction is the only solution, but the argument is that it is against the right of shelter… which, in this case and in many to follow, iare against the right of life
    Most of us, DM readers, are trying to be politically correct defending human rights. How can we be so hypocrites?
    We also know that there is not alternative accommodation for the evicted, are we going to wait for the fish and bread miracle?
    There are 57 buildings identified, municipal property, but if we drive through town, are 100s of hijacked building… are we going to wait until Roma is on fire? Please let me know about the best view point to observe it.
    Thank you

  • D'Esprit Dan says:

    Of course the first thing Slumbering Cyril said is that nobody should be blamed – what a callous, disgusting man he is, completely bereft of any kind of decency, when his first thought is how to shift responsibility away from his trough-swillers and their criminal counterparts in the city’s ruling elite.

  • Jennifer Rose says:

    The sad reality is that the politicians have been so busy playing the politician game, that they have ignored all that was important. Behind the scenes, in the council passages stealing, corruption and a lack of accountability to anyone is the attitude of those who are supposed to be running the city, and no one cares!! As long as one politician can outdo the other in power, status money and shouting inanities from the podiums, and if the voting public continues to vote because of those values, or chooses not to exercise their votes, Joburg will continue to be a fine example of a badly run city.

  • Jennifer D says:

    The ANC cadre celebrated their victory and then forgot to stop celebrating. When the money ran out, they needed more and more and more. Their incredible greed and complete disregard for the purpose and function of their roles has been the biggest disappointment of my life.

    • Cedric Buffler says:

      Pre 1994, I was privileged to collaborate with several of the people in ANC leadership. The post ’94 celebrations were appropriate – at first – but they didn’t stop. “Disappointment” does not adequately describe my visceral response to the post-Mbeki years.
      This latest tragedy, with its subsequent blame-game just increases the sense of shame at identifying as South African, outside of rugby, cricket, Banyana and netball. Pathetic, isn’t it?

  • Ian Gwilt says:

    It is like Monty Python sketch
    Break the law by trespassing, then use the law to demand rights. Throw into the mix a totally incompetent bunch of could not care officials and here you have , the brave new dawn.

  • Gregory Scott says:

    A very tragic and sad day for sure.
    On reflection, it is the consequence of the incompetence of CoJ to do their job and apply the municipal by-laws, the incompetence of SAPS to do their job to maintain law and order to provide a safe and secure environment in which citizens and authorities can coexist for the betterment of every citizen.
    The National Government, or should I say the ANC, shows the greatest degree of incompetence. Instead of appointing people on the basis of competency to serve the citizens of South Africa, they have used cadre deployment, BEE and the ignorance of their electorate for the enrichment of the ANC elite at the expense of making South Africa a success.
    Alas, the majority of South African citizens elected the ANC. Why the sudden surprise with these tragic outcomes, why the sorrow? Worse it will get. The ANC have broken South Africa. Viva ANC Viva. Eish!
    The poorest of the poor will suffer the most.
    Cry our beloved country.

  • David Katz says:

    This is the consequence of the PIE act, good intentions that are impractical. It is impossible for landlords to control their own buildings without huge security and legal costs.

  • Angela Sayer-Farley says:

    Yes, it is inevitable that this humanitarian disaster will become a political football. And no, it does not need yet another commission of enquiry to find out that the building belongs to the provincial govt, which has abandoned its responsibility to maintain it – we know that already. But can we all please not ignore the elephant on the street: the (seemingly) beautifully renovated building right opposite, with its new windows and cheerful yellow borders, showing that it is possible to resurrect a ‘heritage’ building. Can the owner please stand up and, even better, be co-opted into renovating more Joburg inner-city buildings economically, so that units can be let out to the poor?

  • Denise Smit says:

    The EFF saying it wanted to clean out illegality. They are the party who actively promote illegal occupation of land and property and whatever they can get their hand on. Doctor in what? Politicking. Denise Smit

  • The government has to DEAL with refugees not just ignore the fact that they are here. Why aren’t they setting up refugee ‘camps’ to help. A lawless country with a gangster government. Yes, we have to help our own but the gate is not closed for illegals so ignoring them is putting huge pressure on everyone.

  • Rama Chandra says:

    Can the DM stop making up bogus Albert Einstein quotes? If a journal claims to be on the side of truth, it really shouldn’t be headlining lies. It is distracting and annoying. And yes, I appreciate DM probably picked it up from a bogus Facebook post, but that is a very poor excuse for such poor journalism, even if it is just the quote for the day.

  • Jane Crankshaw says:

    Johannesburg – a truly African city!

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