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Deadly fire prompts City of Joburg to seek legal clarity on evictions from hijacked buildings

Deadly fire prompts City of Joburg to seek legal clarity on evictions from hijacked buildings
Fire crews and emergency staff stand next to the covered bodies of the victims as they gather at the site of a fire that broke out at the five-storey building in the city centre, in Johannesburg, South Africa, 31 August 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Kim Ludbrook)

After 77 people died in a fire in a building owned by the City of Johannesburg, the municipality reportedly plans to go to court to seek clarity on the requirement to place evictees in alternative accommodation, which it says prevents it from dealing with hijacked buildings.

The City of Johannesburg, which has been criticised for failing to deal with hijacked buildings where residents often live in squalid conditions, plans to launch a legal bid to clarify the requirement of finding alternative accommodation for evicted residents.

This comes after the death toll from the fire that engulfed a five-storey building at 80 Albert Street in Johannesburg’s CBD last week rose to 77.

According to a report in the Sunday Times, the city has identified 188 hijacked buildings in the city centre. The Johannesburg Property Owners and Managers Association has compiled a list of 57 properties that have been hijacked, where residents are charged between R600 and R1,200 a week by their “landlords”.

While the city and private property owners often want to send in authorities to raid buildings and evict people living there illegally, legal precedent states that they must provide adequate alternative accommodation to residents who would be rendered homeless by eviction.

However, there is a lack of low-cost housing in Johannesburg and the municipality is often unable to provide adequate alternative accommodation, which has led to city officials criticising the NGOs that defend tenants’ rights.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Bad to worse — massive gap in rightful housing and basic service delivery for Joburg’s inner city low-income residents

City of Johannesburg manager Floyd Brink told the Sunday Times that the municipality would go to court to test the law on alternative accommodation, claiming that it was required to house evicted persons within 5-10km of the site they had been evicted from.

“In a built-up area like this, where do you start?” Brink told the publication.

“We have tried several options to solve the problem of the hijacked buildings, but we always get stuck in legislation.

“We are considering our options and it looks like we will be approaching the courts in the coming week on an urgent basis so we can get clarity on what we can and cannot do about these hijacked buildings.

“People must understand the context. We have seen statistics that an average of more than 3,000 people relocate to Joburg’s inner city from other parts of the country and continent per month. I can tell you that we suspect that number to be lower than what we see in reality.”

In 2020, the Socio-Economic Rights Institute (Seri), one of the organisations often criticised by city officials, released a policy brief suggesting municipalities be both “predictive of potential homelessness and responsive to eviction orders that lead to homelessness.

“As it stands, alternative accommodation in Johannesburg is supplied haphazardly in relation to evictions in the inner city and in informal settlements, indicating an absence to plan. In both situations, residents are generally relocated into buildings or shacks that are poorly structured,” Seri said.

Addressing the media at the site of the fire on Thursday, President Cyril Ramaphosa said the incident needed to be investigated and lessons had to be learnt so that such tragedies could be prevented.

“It’s a wake-up call for us to begin to address the situation of housing in the inner city,” he said.

Read more in Daily Maverick: City of Joburg shuttered task team that should have cleaned up building in which 73 died

Death toll 

Gauteng Department of Health (GDoH) officials said on Sunday the death toll from the fire had risen from 74 to 77, with three people dying in hospital. All the bodies had been taken to the Diepkloof Forensic Pathology Services Mortuary where postmortems were conducted.

The GDoH said DNA samples had been drawn from 62 unidentifiable bodies, with 13 antemortem swabs taken from the siblings or parents of victims, which will be cross-referenced with the DNA samples to aid identification.

“Meanwhile, only 31 people are still receiving care in hospital as of Sunday after 88 patients were seen at various health facilities since the horrific fire,” the GDoH said.

Ongoing trauma

At least 200 families lived at 80 Albert Street and the city has made three shelter sites available for the survivors. However, some residents refused to move to the shelter, fearing they would lose their valuables that were still inside parts of the building less affected by the blaze or would be arrested as undocumented migrants.

City of Johannesburg Speaker Colleen Makhubele was quoted on Saturday by News24 as saying, “We are still calling on foreign nationals who need attention, whether it is shelter or medical care, to come forth. We are not looking at documentation; we are looking at this as a humanitarian crisis.”

However, that same day, authorities raided a dilapidated building behind the one where the fire occurred and, according to sources, arrested undocumented migrants who had survived the blaze.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Some Johannesburg inferno survivors refuse shelter, opt to sleep outside fire-ravaged building

Survivors have been grappling with concerns about their post-shelter accommodations, where their next meal will come from and how they will acquire essential items like clothing and blankets. Civil society organisations continued to work on the scene to assist those affected. 

Nondumiso Ngubane (23) who lived at the ill-fated building for three years, is one of the survivors who has been placed in a shelter.

She expressed her desire to return to work, but explained that she couldn’t because of her unsettling circumstances and lack of possessions. She had to find a new place to live, and her predicament was compounded by the absence of necessities such as blankets and toiletries.

Read more in Daily Maverick: How to help? Call for urgent humanitarian aid as hundreds of Johannesburg fire victims face uncertain future

Ngubane said people in the shelter had received limited communication from officials, with their last contact dating back to last week, leaving them in a state of uncertainty and distress.

This tragic incident serves as a stark reminder of the urgent need for comprehensive solutions to address the housing crisis and improve basic service delivery for Johannesburg’s low-income residents. A call has been made for humanitarian aid to assist the fire victims in rebuilding their lives. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Johan Buys says:

    Cruel, but what constitutional protection does an illegal immigrant enjoy or deserve? Imagine I overstay my visa in London, move into a slumlord building, and then when the slumlord wants to evict me, the courts tell the UK government to provide me with alternative accommodation?

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