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Durban’s hijacked and ‘problem buildings’ in spotlight as communities fear repeat of Joburg inferno

Durban’s hijacked and ‘problem buildings’ in spotlight as communities fear repeat of Joburg inferno
The smell of rubbish is overpowering at the Marikana building in Durban, 10 August 2022, on the University Street side. (Photo: Phumlani Thabethe)

Following the fire in a Johannesburg hijacked building that killed more than 70 people, Daily Maverick revisited some of the dilapidated buildings in the city of Durban, where crime and grime are fast-destroying the once-vibrant and prosperous inner-city tourism hub. This is Part Two in a series on eThekwini.

In Durban’s Warwick Junction section, there is a building that has come to be popularly known as Marikana. It is a set of three three-storey buildings facing three streets and flanked by a busy taxi rank on the other. The buildings have a single forecourt.

 

The building complex was named after the area in North West where 34 mine workers, security guards and policemen were killed during a violent strike in 2012.

Read Part One in this series here: Durban decay – how crime and corruption are turning a world-class city into a crumbling nightmare

It is one of those buildings that Durbanites have come to regard as a byword for decrepit. Critics say the whole city will resemble these buildings in the near future if nothing is done to arrest the decline.

Leading Durban-based town planner John Forbes says the decay of the buildings and other infrastructure in the Durban CBD has been consistent over the years and is an indictment of the municipality.

Over the past few years, there has been a growing number of buildings similar to Marikana in the city centre and on the outskirts.

Durban’s notorious Marikana building, which has become the symbol of Durban crime and grime, is where passers-by, including women, are constantly mugged, 5 September 2023. (Photo: Phumlani Thabethe)

The so-called Marikana building has a chequered past. It was once a disused warehouse. In 1958, it was bought by the then University of Natal, renovated and re-named Marian Buildings, which housed black students who were not allowed to stay within the university precinct due to apartheid laws. In later years, it was used and operated by the KZN Ambulance Service.

In December 2020, the eThekwini executive committee (exco) approved a report from the municipality’s human settlement and infrastructure department to demolish 80 buildings — including the Marikana building — which were identified as “problem buildings”, and redevelop them for social housing. The project was expected to cost about R500-million.

Some of the “problem buildings” had been built as warehouses, but city inspectors found that they had since been illegally partitioned and made into residential areas without following town planning regulations and procedures.

Thirty-nine of these 80 “problem buildings” are on Mahatma Gandhi Road (formerly Point Road) and others are spread around the city.

Some of these buildings, like Marikana, are owned by government entities or owned by the Department of Public Works; others, mainly along Mahatma Gandhi Road are owned by parastatal Transnet; and others are owned by private individuals and companies.

Violent crime and illicit solicitation

In early 2022, Durban Mayor Mxolisi Kaunda said “tackling problem and dilapidating buildings” was the city’s number one priority.

When Daily Maverick visited the Point and other areas this week, there were many buildings still in decay and with no construction or renovation taking place. These buildings remain an eyesore, and are hideouts for criminals and vandals.

A woman and child walk past the Marikana building and surroundings from the University Street side, 5 September 2023. (Photo: Phumlani Thabethe)

Nearby businesses and hawkers say the Marikana building has become synonymous with biblical-era Sodom and Gomorrah, where there are illegal shebeens, where peddlers of all sorts of drugs openly trade their wares, and where young sex workers ply their trade. There are also people illegally letting rooms for hours at a time.

A security guard stationed across the road from Marikana, who asked not to be named, said he is a guard hired by local shopkeepers to keep pickpockets at bay.

“The thugs rob our clients and run away into that building,” he said, pointing to Marikana. “They know that once they are inside, nobody can touch them. So, when these thugs come around to mill and wait for unsuspecting victims to rob, we chase them away, sometimes we whip them.”

Going inside Marikana recently, before the deadly Johannesburg fire accident, we found a hive of activity.

In the courtyard, one is greeted with a huge pile of rubbish as a few children, who look to be between three and six years old, play.

*Patrick Shezi (not his real name) is one of the people running an illegal shebeen there. He grudgingly spoke to Daily Maverick.

He said he bought the space from a homeless man, who had been one of the pioneers. “I paid a few hundred bucks. I saw a gap in the market and took it. My customers are mainly people who are coming to take a taxi nearby at the Clermont or Umlazi taxi ranks. They want to have a nip and or quart of beer quickly before they get into the taxi to go home,” he said.

Drugs and alcohol are often sold  from the area around the Marikana building, 5 September 2023,  from University Street. (Photo: Phumlani Thabethe)

He said when he arrived about four years ago, there was a lot of lawlessness in the building.

“The paras used to pickpocket people and run into the building. On a few occasions, the taxi owners and drivers armed themselves and entered the building to seek these paras.

“We had to tell them [the paras] that they must not mug people or do other crimes around here because we end up getting involved. If they are doing their dirty deeds, they do it far away, or else we will deal with them,” he said.

Shezi said many people in Marikana, apart from the vandals and the paras, are renting rooms at prices ranging from R350 to R500.

“Some of the tenants prefer to live in the city centre than to commute — which is costly — between their work here in the city, and the townships and informal settlements,” said Shezi.

Durban’s inner-city Marikana building, 05 September 2023. ‘Things have got so bad that many people have pulled out of the CBD,’ says a town planner. (Photo: Phumlani Thabethe)

Passers-by targeted 

Thozama Mhlongo, who works in one of the hair salons along Lancers Road, said most people, especially women, fear being mugged when passing near the Marikana gate.

Bheki Mokoena, one of the plain-clothes security guards patrolling in the CBD, said there are several buildings which, like Marikana, have been taken over by vandals.

“If nothing is done to bring law and order in Durban, the whole city would be like that. The buildings would be deserted by legitimate businesses and the law of the jungle would be the order of the day,” he said.

John Forbes, a Durban-based town planner who has been practising for the past 59 years, said several buildings, amenities and other infrastructure had been left to rot.

“The most obvious thing that you see when you drive through the city centre is the dirt and the decay of its buildings. It is clear that the municipality is not pulling its weight. It employs people who do not have an interest in doing their jobs and managers who are not following things up. One could go on and on. 

“Things have got so bad that many people have pulled out of the CBD, the offices have left the city and some of these decaying spaces are being turned into residential areas,” he said.

Forbes said Umhlanga Ridge had become the new city centre for the wealthy and middle class.

Political intervention

Opposition political parties said they were worried about the proliferation of abandoned and vandalised buildings in the city centre.

Durban’s notorious Marikana building is one of the ‘problem buildings’ in the inner city, 5 September 2023. (Photo: Phumlani Thabethe)

Mdu Nkosi, IFP’s chief whip and eThekwini Executive Committee member, said: “Some of the buildings have become a den of criminals. Some of them are owned by the city and some are owned by the provincial government. Instead of allowing them to be vandalised or occupied by criminal gangs, we, as the IFP, put up a motion in the city council that these buildings be allocated to families, to people who lost their homes in the recent floods. But our motion was defeated.

“We are concerned about the grime and crime in the city centre. We need a leadership that will stand up and say, ‘enough is enough, we can no longer tolerate the decline of the city,’” Nkosi said.

eThekwini Municipality told Daily Maverick that it was finally doing something about problem buildings by cleaning them up and eliminating the danger they posed in their current form.

In the Marikana building, for example, in the past few weeks, the city has destroyed the guard house that operated as a shebeen and adjoining wall. The owner of the shebeen has since inserted a marque and booze sales continue.

Gugu Sisilana, spokesperson for eThekwini Municipality, said: “The city has identified 88 problem buildings currently in the database (this number is not static as buildings are inspected continuously and removed once success has been declared).

“The are 23 hijacked buildings where owners have regained control through problem-building intervention. Five problem buildings have been demolished and 15 have been renovated, and 25 problem building owners have come forward and committed themselves [to cleaning the buildings out and removing squatters],” she said.

Sisilana added, “According to the bad buildings by-law regarding hijacked buildings, the property owner will be placed on terms and required to evacuate the building, secure and/or seal the property against any unauthorised re-entry of any persons, and to remedy and turn around the problem building. Should the owner not comply with the conditions/orders imposed, a court order will be sought for evacuation, demolition and/or remediation by the owner, failing which the municipality will carry out such works and recover the costs from the owner.

“Should the building be deemed a danger to life and property and/or is dilapidated, and the owner fails to comply with the conditions/orders imposed, the PBD [Problem Buildings Division] may carry out the required remedial works in order to remove the dangerous situation/dilapidation and recover the cost from the owner,” she said. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Ben Harper says:

    Drag everyone out and demolish the buildings. Simple.

  • Niki Moore says:

    Here in Durban there has been no enforcement since around 2016. City centre, suburbs, everywhere. It is pointless even reporting problem buildings as nothing happens.
    Houses, flats and office buildings are taken over and put to use in contravention of planning regulations and by-laws.
    There is no mechanism to report problem buildings, one can only send a mail to the city and hope for the best. Sometimes they respond, sometimes they don’t.
    We formed a committee about two years to request the municipality to talk to us about problem buildings. They refused to meet with us, because ‘we don’t work for you’.

  • Patterson Alan John says:

    Is anyone surprised anymore?
    Any attempt to return the cities to a respectable standard is like trying to win the battle when f…….g against a thunderstorm.

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