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Catholic Bishops: Real culprits of Joburg fire are those in power who have allowed slumlords to flourish

Catholic Bishops: Real culprits of Joburg fire are those in power who have allowed slumlords to flourish
Grieving relatives of deceased Marshalltown fire victims near the burnt-out building in Johannesburg on 31 August 2023. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

The Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference released a statement the day after a deadly fire killed 77 people in downtown Johannesburg. They said the ‘real culprits’ of the deadly blaze were ‘slumlords’.

The bishops said that they were deeply disturbed by the dangerous anti-immigrant rhetoric that is being normalised. Are the slumlords the only ones to be blamed? Has the “blame game” been normalised?

And who are the real culprits of the tragic fire that left more than 77 people dead in downtown Johannesburg, which has infamously become known as “80 Albert Street”? 

“The real culprits”, the Catholic bishops said in a statement a day after the fire, are “slumlords who capture such buildings and who unscrupulously exploit the homeless and the poor, forcing them to live in inhumane and dangerous situations while charging them rent for the ‘privilege’ to live in such death traps”.

They said that slumlords are “symptomatic of the widespread sense of lawlessness that prevails in our country that such illegality is allowed to happen and goes unpunished”.

The bishops are correct. Slumlords have captured many buildings in Johannesburg – and other cities in South Africa. For more than a week, various news outlets, including Daily Maverick, have exposed the inhumane conditions many people find themselves in, in so-called “hijacked” buildings run by slumlords.

Johannesburg CBD fire — What it looks like inside the city’s hijacked buildings

The statement goes on to say: “The outrage we feel should not be confined to the tragedy of this particular loss of life, but our outrage should extend to the fact that there are still so many tens of thousands of poor, homeless people who are forced by circumstances to live in such dangerous situations where basic safety laws are not observed, and illegality is not dealt with.”

Rudderless leadership

Slumlords should be held accountable and brought to book, but can we say that the slumlords are the real culprits? Or are slumlords themselves symptomatic of the fact that South Africa’s national and local leadership has failed the country? The real culprits are those in political power. South Africa’s rudderless leadership has allowed criminals, like slumlords, to flourish.

Many South African towns and cities have deteriorated in the past two decades. This is primarily due to the self-serving callousness of those in political power. Municipalities have collapsed because of political infighting, cadre deployment, the incompetence of incumbents and corruption.

The City of Johannesburg, as many know, has had eight executive mayors in two years. Political infighting has been the cause of the steady flow of mayors in and out of the mayoral chamber. The greed for power and corruption in the city’s leadership has resulted in the City of Johannesburg’s services becoming largely dysfunctional. When the system crumbles, it leads to illegality and crime. This always crushes the most vulnerable and the poor before anyone else. 

Just days after the devastating fire, amid multiple reports about the plight of the vulnerable in the city, the politicians gathered in their comfortable municipal chambers and voted for salary increases. News24 reports that, just five days after 77 people died, the Mayor of Johannesburg, Kabelo Gwamanda, earned another R55,000 a year.

This cold-hearted response to the inhabitants of a city, still in mourning and brought to its knees by incompetence, suggests that the real culprits we should call out are these so-called leaders. Interestingly, the DA caucus defended its decision to support the ANC in a pay hike for councillors.

‘Dangerous anti-immigrant rhetoric’

The bishops said they were “deeply disturbed by some political statements that attempt to diminish the depth of the tragedy because illegal immigrants are among those killed”. They went on to say that “those who died were people – our brothers and sisters – and to dismiss them as ‘illegal immigrants’ perpetuates the dangerous anti-immigrant rhetoric that is being normalised”. 

They also condemned the “remark by the minister in the presidency that ‘it’s not the government’s task to provide homes for undocumented immigrants’ as disingenuous in its attempt to shift blame and scapegoat foreign nationals – as if some lives are less important than others”. They said “such a cold, uncompassionate response from a senior leader in government is profoundly disturbing”.

Again, the bishops hit the nail on the head. The political leadership in South Africa has normalised anti-immigrant rhetoric. They have also normalised the “blame game”.

Politician after politician visited 80 Albert Street on the day of the fire. One could not help thinking that they knew the media would be there and it would be another opportunity for publicity. Most blamed someone: previous municipal administrations, NGOs, apartheid or immigrants.

When did South Africans last hear any public servant take responsibility for their bad judgment or shortcomings? In the past two decades, there have been several tragedies for which South Africa’s leadership has not taken responsibility: Marikana, Life Esidimeni, and the looting of PPE funds during the Covid-19 pandemic are some shocking examples. The inability to take responsibility is also symptomatic of failing leadership.

The bishops conclude their statement by saying that they support President Cyril Ramaphosa’s call for an investigation into the root cause of the fire and that they appreciate the President for “the sobriety of his statement that we are all to blame for what has happened”.

An investigation into the cause of such a tragedy is always essential for the loved ones of those who lost their lives so that those who are left get some closure, and so that, importantly, we can make sure that we do not ever see such tragedy repeated. South Africa needs to know what happened. 

Commissions, but never action

The Premier of Gauteng, Panyaza Lesufi, announced on Tuesday, 5 September, that retired judge Sisi Khampepe will lead a commission of inquiry into the deadly fire.

However, South Africans know that the answer to most things in our country is a commission or an investigation that, no matter how well researched, never seems to bear fruit when it comes to acting – be that the fixing of infrastructure or holding individuals to account.

We have a political leadership willing to spend money on investigations and commissions, but who do not have the political will or courage to follow through on the findings of such investigations and commissions.

Investigations and commissions are smoke and mirrors if, for the most part, their findings are written in a report that stays just that: words on a page. If you are unwilling to take action, the time and taxpayers’ money are wasted. This, too, is another symptom of a leadership failing to lead and lacking moral courage. 

Indeed, every citizen of the country – all people of goodwill, and there are many in South Africa – must do their part to dig the country out of its current crisis. Shifting blame and scapegoating are a dead end and will only have detrimental outcomes for every South African. 

However, we must not let the country’s leadership off the hook. The real culprits of South Africa’s slow demise should repeatedly be called out and held accountable. We must use all the mechanisms we can, including our vote, to make it clear that South Africa needs a courageous moral leadership that is morally willing and tangibly works to transform the lives of the poorest and most vulnerable – not for any other reason except that our humanity demands this from us.

We are all culprits if we choose to lose our humanity. DM

Fr Russell Pollitt SJ (entered the Jesuits 2001; ordained 2006) is the Director of the Jesuit Institute of South Africa.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Ben Harper says:

    Hmm, wonder why the Catholic Bishops are not as vocal of their own members and there horrible crimes against children

  • Paddy Ross says:

    Thank you, Fr Pollitt, for bringing this important statement to the attention of the DM audience. Inevitably, there will those who do not listen to the statement but will only parrot their own prejudices.

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