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Survivors of Joburg’s Marshalltown fire left in limbo, hungry and desperate, after state’s empty promises

Survivors of Joburg’s Marshalltown fire left in limbo, hungry and desperate, after state’s empty promises
The aftermath from the fire that destroyed the Johannesburg CBD building at the corner of Delvers and Alberts streets on 7 September 2023 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo: Gallo Images / Fani Mahuntsi)

The survivors are in desperate need of grief and trauma management services, identity documents, food, permanent housing solutions and more.

Former residents of 80 Albert Street in Marshalltown, Johannesburg, who were moved into temporary emergency accommodation after a fire destroyed the building, cannot afford to travel to a mortuary to identify the bodies of their loved ones who died in the 31 August fire. Some don’t have money for the funeral costs. They don’t have enough food to eat at the shelter and they’re tired of empty promises.

“It’s money. We don’t have money,” said Vuyiswa Mthembu, one of the former residents.

Seventy-four people died in the blaze, including 12 children. Of these, 30 had been positively identified, leaving 44 still awaiting identification, according to the Gauteng Department of Health.  

While many of the dead were immigrants from Malawi, Tanzania and Zimbabwe, South African nationals were also among them. Nevertheless, the City of Johannesburg has pointed fingers at NGOs and foreign nationals in the wake of the fire.

Now, a month later, the cause of the fire is still unknown, and the survivors are in a state of limbo, with promises from the government unfulfilled.

A commission of inquiry, launched by Gauteng Premier Panyaza Lesufi and chaired by retired Constitutional Court Judge Sisi Khampepe, was scheduled to begin its investigations on Sunday, 1 October, but this did not occur. The commission is now expected to provide an update on the investigation later this week.

Johannesburg fire

People gather in front of the gutted 80 Albert Street building, where at least 74 people died in a fire, in downtown Johannesburg, South Africa, 1 September 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Kim Ludbrook)

Unfulfilled promises

The fire, which was reported to have been the deadliest ever in South Africa, made international headlines, and leaders at the local, provincial and national levels vowed to take action.

The government pledged immediate assistance for the survivors, including emergency shelter, food, clothing and essential supplies.

The City of Johannesburg, in collaboration with the provincial government, assured the provision of temporary accommodation for those displaced by the fire while long-term housing solutions were addressed.

Injured survivors were promised medical treatment and emotional support through government health services. Authorities vowed to diligently identify and document those who died in the fire.

During a visit to the scene, President Cyril Ramaphosa said the fire was a “great tragedy” and a wake-up call for South Africa to tackle its inner-city housing crisis.

“The lesson for us is that we have got to address this problem and root out the criminal elements, because it is these types of buildings that are taken over by criminals, who then levy rent to vulnerable people and families who need and want accommodation in the inner city. And it speaks to the type of cities we should have in South Africa.”

Read more in Daily Maverick: Gauteng government commits to supporting fire victims — 44 bodies still unidentified

While the promises reflected a commitment from government authorities at all levels to address the immediate and long-term needs of the survivors, the reality on the ground tells a different story.

Survivors in limbo

Civic organisations have taken the lead in providing essential support, ensuring that survivors are fed and clothed.

Many of the survivors say they have not heard from the City of Johannesburg or the government about what will happen to them, as the temporary emergency accommodation (TEA) expired on 30 September.

However, the City of Johannesburg’s TEA draft policy stipulates that the survivors cannot be evicted in the absence of alternative accommodation, further adding to the complexity of the situation.

City officials failed to respond to Daily Maverick’s questions about its long-term plan for the former residents of 80 Albert Street who have been housed in temporary emergency accommodation and how the city has been supporting the survivors.

As questions linger about the cause of the fire and accountability, the survivors remain in limbo, hoping for a resolution and the support they were promised by government authorities.

One couple, who come from Queenstown in the Eastern Cape, have not been able to bury their 16-year-old daughter because they lack funds to transport her remains home. They are among more than 150 survivors being housed in temporary emergency accommodation at the Hofland Park Recreation Centre in Bezuidenhout Valley.

The aftermath of the fire that destroyed the Johannesburg CBD building at 80 Albert Street on 7 September 2023. (Photo: Gallo Images / Fani Mahuntsi)

‘We don’t know what to do’

Vuyiswa Mthembu (33) and her husband, Magendo Njama (35), lost everything in the fire. Three of Njama’s brothers died but the couple have not been to the mortuary to identify them.

“We cannot go because we have no money. We have nothing. We do not know what to do,” Mthembu said.  

She said another survivor who is staying at the Hofland Park Recreation Centre couldn’t afford to travel to Diepkloof to identify her daughter who died in the fire so she walked all the way to Soweto from Bezuidenhout Valley.

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

Mthembu ran a hair salon at 80 Albert Street and her husband had a spaza shop in the building. Both businesses were on the first floor of the building, which partly collapsed in the fire. 

“It’s worse for me and my husband because we lost both our businesses and we have no income,” Mthembu said. 

“We are very stressed. I need help to reopen my salon. I need a small start and a place to work from because our lives are on a pause.”

‘People are tired’

Many of the survivors at the Hofland Park Recreation Centre are tired of speaking to government officials and journalists, saying they only receive empty promises. They say they are hungry and desperate and nothing is changing. 

“People are tired of giving out their names and ID numbers and talking to them every day without getting the help they so desperately seek,” Mthembu said.

She said city officials say they are still waiting for donor funds to assist those who want to move from the temporary accommodation.

There is a huge demand for food at the Hofland Park Recreation Centre and no accountability for the supplies, leading to theft from outsiders acting as sympathisers, residents said.

Money, clothes, cellphones and documents have allegedly been stolen. Danilsile Ximba told Daily Maverick that her ID had been stolen at the shelter. She said she feared that the few belongings she had left would be stolen at the shelter, which would make it difficult for her to keep her job.

“We are tired of staying here. They promised us it was temporary,” Mthembu said.

Survivors said they have little privacy at the shelter. 

“It’s just a hall. It’s not partitioned like it was in Marshalltown. We appreciate the temporary emergency accommodation but we are desperate to get our lives back,” Mthembu said. 

Vulnerable to abuse

Other survivors have been moved to the Wembley Stadium Homeless Shelter and Impilo Shelter, while some have opted not to be placed in the shelters.

Meanwhile, the City of Johannesburg is said to have been in contact with the embassies of Tanzania, Malawi and Zimbabwe to repatriate the bodies of those who died in the fire and assist with temporary documentation.

The Tanzanian embassy has issued temporary documents for its nationals, valid for three months, although there have been reports of authorities challenging their authenticity. Other embassies are reportedly assisting survivors who wish to return to their home countries, although this remains a minority choice.

An activist working closely with the community has raised concerns about a growing climate of xenophobia and othering in the shelters. They argue that, with no clear oversight, survivors are vulnerable to abuse as they attempt to rebuild their lives from scratch.

The survivors are in desperate need of grief and trauma management services, identity documents, food, permanent housing solutions and more. As the days pass, they still hope for action and meaningful support from the authorities tasked with helping them. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Ingrid Kemp says:

    Why are these people starving – where are the NGOs or NPOs ? In Somerset West, folk have stepped up to assist those in Sir Lowry’s Pass Village.

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