Maverick Citizen


Wits and UJ academics rally to demand justice for victims of Albert Street fire

Wits and UJ academics rally to demand justice for victims of Albert Street fire
Illustrated image: Seventy-seven people died in a fire at 80 Albert Street, Marshalltown, Johannesburg on 31 August 2023. (Photo: Supplied) | Students march. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sharon Seretlo) | Witwatersrand University signage. (Photo: Gallo Images / Fani Mahuntsi) | University of Johannesburg signage (Photo: Gallo Images / Papi Morake)

There is enormous anger at both Wits and UJ at the growing injustice and suffering faced by poor people in a city that is home to both universities, their staff and students, says a UJ professor, Kate Alexander. This was reflected in the way support for a co-signed letter of demand had ‘snowballed’.

A total of 117 academics from the University of the Witwatersrand and the University of Johannesburg (UJ) have joined together to sign a letter to “demand that the City of Johannesburg justly compensates families of those who perished and other residents who lived at 80 Albert Street”.

The letter calls “on all residents of our city to hold our many mayors and mayoral committee members, former and current, responsible for the decay of scores of inner-city buildings”.

The full text of the letter is published below.

According to Kate Alexander, Professor of Sociology at UJ’s Centre for Social Change, there is enormous anger at both universities at the growing injustice and suffering faced by poor people in the city that is home to both universities, their staff and students. This was reflected in the way support for the letter had “snowballed”.

As a result, Alexander says, the letter is “fairly representative of the majority of academics in Jo’burg… It covers a broad spectrum of disciplines and seniority. Because of time constraints and the mid-semester break, many colleagues did not have an opportunity to sign, but they would have done so.”

Alexander adds: “We can take it for granted that academics don’t like xenophobia. UJ has officially supported three civil-society demonstrations against xenophobia and the vice-chancellor led one on campus. Both universities emphasise the importance of internationalism, and a large number of academic staff, as well as students, are foreign nationals.

“Most colleagues regard the fire as a tragic example of the parlous state of the city, which they experience themselves in different ways.”

The letter is one more instance of a growing outcry about the mismanagement of the City of Johannesburg, corruption and the consequences being borne by the poor, especially in access to basic services and socioeconomic rights such as adequate housing, sufficient food and water and healthcare services.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Tragedy and miracles unfold: Remembering the many Albert Street fire victims 

On Saturday, more than 300 delegates from community civics, trade unions, student organisations, socialist and civil society organisations, as well as residents staying in the inner city of Johannesburg gathered at the Library Gardens, in central Johannesburg, to reflect on the Marshalltown tragedy. A diverse group of more than 40 organisations — including Saftu, R2K, Lawyers for Human Rights and the TAC — resolved to seek a meeting with the City of Johannesburg and to make submissions to the commission of inquiry that has been set up to investigate the fire. They are also planning various forms of protest action.

The meeting heard a report from a group of activists who have been working day and night to support the fire’s victims, many of whom are still homeless, hungry and traumatised. It condemned what it called “inhumane treatment” of the fire victims “that ranged from segregation based on nationality, arrests and extortions for lack of documents, despite the obvious fact that many of them, South African and migrants, lost the documents during the fire”.

It criticised politicians from all parties who “were inflaming the situation by bashing the poor and migrants, as well as the organisations supporting them instead of engaging them to offer humanitarian and emergency relief as well as working towards relocation to alternative accommodation and support.”

Text of the letter from Wits and UJ academics

We, academics at Johannesburg’s universities, express heartfelt condolences to the families of 77 fellow residents of our city who died in the fire at 80 Albert Street in the city centre. We sympathise with those who were injured and those whose possessions were destroyed in this tragic event.

We hold the City of Johannesburg, the owner of the building, responsible for allowing it to fall into the state of dilapidation that made a disaster more likely. We condemn all those, but especially our politicians whose mandate tasks them with upholding the Constitution, who have blamed immigrants and NGOs (specifically the Socio-Economic Rights Institute) for what occurred.

Civil society organisations and South Africa’s residents no matter their national origin expect the municipality to follow our law, and suitable accommodation should be provided for inhabitants of “hijacked” buildings, prior to their demolition or refurbishment. Attacks on foreign nationals, whatever their intention, will stimulate xenophobic violence. Our support for the enforcement of constitutional rights, including the right to life and the right to shelter (guaranteed to “everyone” according to Section 26) is a defence of the very cornerstones of our democracy.

The municipality is obliged to maintain publicly owned buildings, and ensure the security of all workers and inhabitants. The building’s heritage status and the fact that it was set aside for sheltered accommodation for vulnerable women and children, should have strengthened the City’s duty of care.

We also stand by our students, many of whom live in inner-city Johannesburg, some of whom experience xenophobia on a daily basis.

We demand that the City of Johannesburg justly compensates families of those who perished and other residents who lived at 80 Albert Street.

We call on all residents of our city to hold our many mayors and mayoral committee members, former and current, responsible for the decay of scores of inner-city buildings. Those implicated in ignoring the conditions that led to so many unnecessary deaths should face prosecution and dismissal for dereliction of duty.

Signed by:

Prof. Philip Harrison (Wits), Prof. Patrick Bond (UJ), Prof. Mfaniseni Sihlongonyane (Wits), Prof. Kate Alexander (UJ), Prof. Noor Nieftagodien (SERI board member) (Wits), Dr Trevor Ngwane (UJ), Prof. Natasha Erlank (UJ), Dr Precious Biyela (Wits), Prof. Dominique Emmanuel Uwizeyimana (UJ), Prof. Marie Huchzermeyer (Wits), Prof. Victoria Collis-Buthelezi (UJ), Prof. Philiswa Nomngongo (UJ), Prof. John Stremlau (Wits), Dr Martin Bekker (Wits), Dr Letitia Smuts (UJ), Dr Ali Khangela Hlongwane (Wits), Prof. Heidi Abrahamse (UJ), Prof. Hennie Strydom (UJ), Prof. Shireen Motala (UJ), Prof. Maria Suriano (Wits), Prof. Srila Roy (Wits), Bettina Malcomess (Wits), Dr Sanele Sibanda (UP), Dr Rebecca Walker (Wits), Dr Michelle Small (Wits), Ms Tracey Rose (Wits), Prof. Jonathan Stadler (UJ), Dr Natalie Zähringer (Wits), Prof. Anna-Mart van Wyk (UJ), Prof. Costa Georghiou (UJ), Dr Glynis Clacherty (Wits), Prof. Keyan Tomaselli (UJ), Prof. Mzwandile Sobantu (UJ), Dr Kezia Lewins (Wits), Prof. Lorena Núñez Carrasco (Wits), Dr Hylton White (Wits), Prof. Linda Chisholm (UJ), Prof. Laurel Baldwin-Ragaven (Wits), Prof. Deirdre Pretorius (UJ), Prof. Jill Bradbury (Wits), Dr Hlengiwe Ndlovu (Wits), Dr Florence Ncube (UJ), Dr Jackie Dugard (SERI Board member) (Columbia and Wits), Prof. Maria Frahm-Arp (UJ), Prof. Kriveshini Pillay (UJ), Dr Andrew Hartnack (UJ), Prof. Jacqui Ala (Wits), Dr Annie Devenish (Wits), Prof. Melissa Steyn (Wits), Ms Ragi Bashonga (UJ), Prof. Clive Glaser (Wits), Prof. Lucy Valerie Graham (UJ), Dr Adam Levin (Wits), Prof. Michelle Williams (Wits), Prof. Vishwas Satgar (Wits), Prof. David Boucher (UJ), Prof. Salim Vally (UJ), Dr Sonia Fanucchi (Wits), Prof. Andy Carolin (UJ), Prof. Simon Roberts (UJ), Dr Thabang Sefalafala (Wits), Carmen Joel (UJ), Prof. Samantha Ashman (UJ), Prof. David Dickinson (Wits), Prof. Alf Nilsen (UP), Dr Charles Puttergill (UP), Prof. Sekiba Lekgoathi (Wits), Prof. Luke Sinwell (UJ), Prof. Emnet Tadesse Woldegiorgis (UJ), Dr Sarah Godsell (Wits), Prof. Zimitri Erasmus (Wits), Prof. Melanie Samson (UJ), Prof. Ahmed C Bawa (UJ), Prof. Alison Todes (Wits), Mr Ahmed Essop (UJ), Dr Mosa Phadi (UFS), Dr Hannah le Roux (Wits), Prof. Maria Marchetti-Mercer (Wits), Ms. Terri-Ann Maggott (UJ), Dr Kibbie Naidoo (UJ), Ms Abigail Dreyer (Wits), Prof. Mondli Hlatshwayo (UJ), Prof. Kim Berman (UJ), Prof. Dilip M Menon (Wits), Ms Phillippa Yaa de Villiers (Wits), Prof. Pamela Nichols (Wits), Prof. Jacklyn Cock (Wits), Prof. Bridget Kenny (Wits), Dr Katlego Disemelo (Wits), Mx Inolofatseng Lekaba (UJ), Prof. Joel Quirk (Wits), Prof. Sarah Charlton (Wits), Mrs Aneri Heukelman (Wits), Dr Christine Bischoff (Wits), Prof. Roger Southall (Wits), Prof. Bhaso Ndzendze (UJ), Prof. Heidi Brooks (Wits), Dr Sarita Pillay Gonzalez (Wits), Dr Brian Boshoff (Wits), Prof. Lauren Graham (UJ), Dr Tshepo Moloi (UJ), Dr Nirvana Pillay (Wits), Dr Sara Jewett (Wits), Prof. Moyra Keane (UJ), Prof. Lawrence Hamilton (Wits and Cambridge), Mrs Xanthe Roux (Wits), Prof. Jane Duncan (Glasgow), Prof. Christopher Yelverton (UJ), Dr Rasigan Maharajh (TUT), Prof. Anne-Maria Makhulu (UJ), Dr Glynis Clacherty  (Wits), Prof. Mbongiseni Buthelezi (UJ and Wits), Prof. Leila Kajee (UJ), Prof. Joost Fontein (UJ), Dr Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon (Wits). DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • James Webster says:

    How typical of academics, cowards to the end. They face off against a paper tiger, the City of Johannesburg, when the government, the ANC, rapes the country to death. These academics may have multiple degrees but speaking out against the mice while a werewolf stalks the halls is just plain stupid.

  • Willem de Beer says:

    Well the sanctimonious attitude is a predictable one. I hence suggest that all the academics who signed will take these poor darlings into your homes then. Please advise on this page where all the victims can assemble and be carted off to those rose smelling guest rooms.
    Remember the chocolate on the cussion when you turn the duvet down. Bully for you I say…

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