Maverick Citizen


After the Albert Street fire – what the authorities should (but probably won’t) announce

After the Albert Street fire – what the authorities should (but probably won’t) announce
Try to imagine how the government would respond to the Albert Street fire if its actions were based on love, compassion and human rights. (Photo: iStock)

Try to imagine how the government would respond to the Albert Street fire if its actions were based on love, compassion, human rights and recognising constitutional duties.

At the end of Kim Adonis’s sterling and startling performance of Mike van Graan’s latest play, My Fellow South Africans, she sings a poignant rendition of John Lennon’s timeless anthem, Imagine. The song is repurposed to talk to our current condition in South Africa, and implores the listener to:

Imagine no more hunger
Decent work for all
No more children dying, young
Women standing tall
Imagine all our people
Living as humans should 

Imagine life without fear
No more need for walls
Hate and anger banished
Ready smiles for all 

Imagine all the people
Sharing in our land
You may say I’m a dreamer 

This weekend I watched the play in Johannesburg in the wake of the terrible fire at 80 Albert Street that has so far claimed nearly 77 lives. In the days since there has been much outrage, introspection and analysis: “A disaster waiting to happen” is what most people agree. As usual, civil society has set up the frontlines of a relief project, one that treats the victims as human beings.

Joburg fire

Grieving relatives of the fire victims near the burnt-out building in Johannesburg on 31 August 2023. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

Sadly, from the people occupying a variety of high government offices there has been callous migrant-blaming, xenophobia, threats against NGOs and a clampdown on migrants living in nearby buildings: see here and here

But, as Wits prof Alex van den Heever puts it in an op-ed in Daily Maverick yesterday:

“The question this narrative desperately tries to avoid is how a government, with all its powers and resources, ends up being weaker than a community with few effective protected rights and a motley crew of precarious civil society actors?”

Bodies of some of those who died in the devastating fire are lined up, some covered in blankets, others already in body bags. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

Imagine a caring response

Enough of that bullshit. 

South Africa needs hope and solutions. So, following Van Graan’s lead I imagined how the government would respond to the fire if its actions were based on compassion, human rights and constitutional duties. 

In my imagination:

Joburg Executive Mayor Kabelo Gwamanda. (Photo: Gallo Images / Luba Lesolle)

  • The mayor of Johannesburg, ​​Kabelo Gwamanda, would call a press conference with some of the survivors of the fire and issue an unreserved apology for the governance failures that led to the fire. He would commit to providing shelter, health, social and counselling services to victims as long as they need them;
  • Side-by-side with survivors (children, people from foreign lands, women among them) Gamanda would announce the City’s full cooperation with the independent commission of inquiry set up by Gauteng premier Panyaza Lesufi to “investigate the prevalence of hijacked buildings in Johannesburg, what caused the deadly blaze in Marshalltown, and who must shoulder total responsibility for this tragedy”;
  • The mayor and the premier would recognise that according to the Constitution “everyone has a right to have access to adequate housing”, and urgently convene a meeting with churches, NGOs and representatives of people who shelter in the inner-city buildings. They would listen to what the victims have to say about the causes of the crisis;
  • Having listened, they would immediately convene another meeting to revive implementation of the Johannesburg Inner City Housing Strategy and Implementation Plan (read it here, it does exist!), a plan that takes into account people’s human rights and economic needs. According to people involved in drafting the plan, since being approved by the mayoral committee in 2017 nothing has been done to action it.

Survivors of the gutted building on the corner Alberts and Delvers streets in Johannesburg on 1 September, 2023. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

In my imagination:

  • “During this period,” mayor Gwamanda, Home Affairs Minister Dr Aaron Motsoaledi and the provincial police commissioner would jointly announce that “there will be a moratorium on evictions and arrests of people purely because of their undocumented immigration status. Instead the JMPD and SAPS will be told to crack down on drug lords, slum lords, people traffickers and all those actually involved in criminal activity”;
  • Andy Mothibi, the head of the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) – whose special investigation into “the affairs of the City of Johannesburg Metropolitan Municipality” (R17 of 2019) has still not been finalised four years after it was gazetted – will announce a timeframe for its completion. They will set a date for handing it over to the President to act on immediately;
  • In addition, Lesufi will announce that he has asked the President to issue a new proclamation specifically tasking the SIU to investigate the Johannesburg Property Company, a department with a R1.1-billion annual operating budget that has itself been “hijacked” and repurposed for corruption.

Read: Graft probe into Joburg property company collapses after interference, intimidation | News24 

In my imagination:

Panyaza Lesufi on April 28, 2023 in Midrand. (Photo: Gallo Images / Luba Lesolle)

  • Lesufi will meet his provincial cabinet to approve a recommendation that section 139 of the Constitution be invoked in order to “maintain essential national standards or meet established minimum standards for the rendering of a service”; and the City of Johannesburg will be placed under administration;
  • The administrator, carefully selected in consultation with civil society and experts, would be given the power to appoint a team made up of skilled people, including professional planners, business people, NGOs, etc, to come up with a rescue plan for the City which would be fully supported by the provincial and national government;
  • A citizens’ oversight committee will be appointed by the mayor, made up of the civic organisations that have been at the forefront of demanding accountability and transparency in procurement and delivery;
  • The leaders of all the political parties in the Johannesburg City Council would issue a declaration that they agree with the approach of the mayor, premier and president and announce that they intend to stabilise the City and, for a period, cease hostilities and instead work together on an emergency plan. The first line of their declaration reads: “We apologise for putting party and self-interest before the people of this great city. We recognise that this city belongs to all who live in it, and that we are its servants.”

Read more in Daily Maverick: Johannesburg Crisis Forum: ‘Take back Egoli: Reclaim the City’ 

Finally in my imagination:

SA President Cyril Ramaphosa. (Photos: Jeffrey Abrahams / Gallo Images / iStock)

  • President Cyril Ramaphosa will hold a family meeting to engage South Africans about migration and xenophobia. He will remind us how the South African nation was always a melting pot of ethnicities and nations, formed out of migrations of tribes and nations. He will explain how and why today Johannesburg is the focal point for migration and how a good government must plan for this (listen to this podcast discussion on migration to Joburg with Stephen Grootes). However, in the meeting he will also recognise how the ANC’s propping up of corrupt regimes, particularly those in Zimbabwe and Swaziland, has subverted democracy in those countries and prolonged the lives of corrupt and brutal governments, driving people to flee their home countries. In light of this Ramaphosa promises to immediately realign our foreign policy and partnerships with the human rights values in our Constitution.

 Rational? Reasonable? Workable? Yes.

Too much to ask? Probably. 

But we can imagine and dream! And if politicians and the government do not live up to our imagination in 2024 and 2026, we can vote them out. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Johan Buys says:

    Does the rest of the world have a system whereby illegal occupiers (illegal viz property rights safety laws) must first be provided with free nearby accommodation before they can be forcibly evicted for their own safety?

    If I overstayed my visa in London, would I be given alternative accommodation or booted out of England?

    What next : if I have enjoyed illegal and/or free electricity for x number of days, I have somehow secured the right to free electricity?

    Somewhere somebody needs to draw a line through rights that just mean FREEdom for everybody. It is very harsh when reduced to the undeniable hardship of Joe and Mary and their kids, but at a societal level there has to be rules and rights that come with obligations. The whole world does not have the right to live anywhere they want.

    This stuff just hardens attitudes. Have a look in liberal NYT at the responses in its articles about eviction, accommodating squatters, about a new light hand justice system that does not prosecute shoplifting unless the value of goods is more than $1000 (R19,000). Ordinary shoppers now endure pharmacy experience where everything on the shelf is behind a screen. “Nearly a third of all shoplifting arrests in New York City last year involved just 327 people, the police said. Collectively, they were arrested and rearrested more than 6,000 times”. The result? Liberal New Yorkers are gatvol.

  • andrew farrer says:

    wow, some imagination! does this go on the shelf next to lord of the rings?

  • Jo Redeker says:

    Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.

    So even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the (American) AFRICAN dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. ML KING 28/8/1963

  • Beyond Fedup says:

    I agree with you 100% , but dream on! Yes, all very possible and the way it should be under any normal and functioning society with human rights, values and common decency at the forefront. Unfortunately in Cyril the spineless and his revolting anc government, one is dealing with the most crass, incompetent, criminal, parasitic, hypocritical, arrogant and corrupt cabal of voracious bottom-feeders imaginable. How does one even begin to understand let alone justify his cozy and subservient relationship with the evil mass-murdering Putin monster, and just this weekend, embracing the bestial Mnangagwa for another stolen election in Zimbabwe. How this man sleeps at night is beyond belief – he obviously has no morals, ethics and conscious. The sooner SA dumps this rotten bunch, the better it will be for this long-suffering and highly abused country.

  • Dee Bee says:

    A great article and an illustration of how a proper government should react (although a proper government wouldn’t have allowed this to happen in the first place). Unfortunately for us, no matter what BS the ANC spins about its track record, its ACTUAL track record is one of spiteful disdain for ordinary citizens and vile hatred for foreigners, of whatever status.

  • sl0m0 za says:

    All the Jo’burg city council probably thinks is “Thank goodness, one less building to worry about.”

  • Duncan Cosser says:


  • Christine Cooke Cooke says:

    An investigation into which ANC ministers are benefitting from the hijacked buildings would shed some light on why this horror is allowed to continue. Excellent piece Mark!

  • Ute Zander says:

    Thank you Mark! You rock.

  • Tony Romer-Lee says:

    Hopefully our opposition party leaders will read this and use it as they stand up to the hopeless Government on all 3 levels…

  • David Crossley says:

    I do agree with a lot of what is written here, but too much liberalism can be very damaging. Read a little about what is happening in San Francisco and how a once beautiful vibrant city is now a haven for homeless people and drug addicts, sleeping rough everywhere and forcing business and retailers out of the city. An over liberal city government has brought this malaise on themselves.
    When all is said and done, decisive action is needed – find the criminals behind the hijacked buildings and lock them up.
    Spend money to clean up the buildings and offer reasonably priced, basic accommodation.
    Human rights must come with teeth to act on those who are taking advantage of the weak and helpless.

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