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Albert Street fire survivors still looking for help amid eviction fears as probe into tragedy set to begin

Albert Street fire survivors still looking for help amid eviction fears as probe into tragedy set to begin
Grieving relatives of deceased Marshalltown fire victims near the burnt-out building in Johannesburg on 31 August 2023. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

As the commission of inquiry into the 80 Albert Street fire is due to begin on Thursday, many survivors are still in limbo as the government has done little to help and NGOs try to plug the gaps.

Almost two months have passed since the tragic fire at 80 Albert Street in Marshalltown, Johannesburg, which resulted in the loss of 77 lives and left 501 people homeless.

Some of the survivors were temporarily housed by the government in shelters around the city, an arrangement that was due to end on 30 September.

The tragedy attracted international attention and leaders from all spheres of government – municipal, provincial and national – spoke about the need to help the survivors and ensure there is never a repeat of what was reported as the deadliest fire in the history of the country. 

But at this point government support for the survivors is basically nonexistent. NGOs have assumed the responsibility of taking care of survivors, entering a complex and contested space.

Johannesburg CBD fire

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)

When Daily Maverick asked the provincial government about the ongoing support provided to the victims, they referred us back to the City of Johannesburg, which has largely ignored requests for comment.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Most survivors of Johannesburg’s Albert St fire are South Africans, action group reveals, calls for urgent intervention

While not all the survivors moved into shelters provided by the government, those who did feared potential eviction after 30 September, the date on which the government had decided it was no longer necessary to house some of its most vulnerable citizens.

A recent development involving the Red Cross extended the evacuation period. The assistance, according to the survivors, included a promise to provide “exit vouchers” of R4,000 to 175 families. That in itself has raised questions over the equitable distribution of donations. 

Daily Maverick learnt that the exit package is part of a donation to help the victims that was made through the South African Red Cross Society (SARCS), but the source and exact amount of the donation remain unclear.

At the Hofland Recreational Centre shelter in Bezuidenhout Valley, some survivors had received these vouchers and left the shelter as of last Thursday, while many others were still waiting for assistance.

SARCS confirmed the donation but said it could not disclose specific amounts due to “safety and protection concerns”.

Survivors are increasingly being pushed back into ‘hijacked’ or ‘abandoned’ buildings while others look for options further away from the city in a desperate search for cheaper lodgings.

Sinethemba Mpehlo, communication and PR lead at SARCS, said: “Informed by the needs assessments and community engagement, SARCS in collaboration with its partners the International Federation of the Red Cross, Disaster Relief Fund (DREF) and Minerals Council South Africa, will distribute cash relief to 175 affected people with the aim to capacitate them to rebuild and foster the dignity of affected people and as such cannot disclose the amount each family will receive due to safety and protection reasons.”

The covered bodies of the victims of a fire at the five-storey building in the city centre are gathered in a street nearby, in Johannesburg, South Africa, 31 August 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Kim Ludbrook)

The DREF and minerals council have not responded to requests for comment.

According to the survivors, the exit package is meant to help them pay rent for three months while they figure out how to piece their lives back together. While desperately needed, the funds do not appear to cover the cheapest rental options in the inner city for three months. 

As a result, survivors are increasingly being pushed back into “hijacked” or “abandoned” buildings while others look for options further away from the city in a desperate search for cheaper lodgings.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Albert Street fire – remembering Melita Mhlebi, one of 77 who died

Instead of moving into a shelter after the fire, one of the survivors, Mphilisi Motseki, opted for cheaper accommodation at one of the so-called hijacked buildings in Marshalltown, 600m from the scene of the 31 August blaze. However, it was not long before this building caught fire too.

“I have been a victim of fire twice in less than one month, which has been very traumatising. What is worse is trying to find affordable accommodation in the city while not having a job or consistent flow of income in your name. So, going back to the so-called hijacked buildings is an alternative because rent there is somewhat reachable, ranging from R600 to R1,000.”

‘This whole thing is a drama’

While the government moved survivors to shelters, many reported living in a state of hunger and fear, as they lacked the basic means to survive.

Sheets used by residents to escape the fire hang from the windows of the gutted 80 Albert Street building, where at least 73 people died in a fire, in downtown Johannesburg, South Africa, 01 September 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Kim Ludbrook)

Besides the exit package, a number of institutions have made donations to help the victims, including R200,000 from Unicef towards food and hygiene materials to cover the survivors’ stay at the shelters.

While NGOs have stepped in to help, questions have been raised about how donations are distributed to intended beneficiaries. 

While others have received messages stipulating the exit package amount and where they can draw the money from, when they try to do so it says the money has been withdrawn.

Ali Dua of the African Diaspora Forum, representing Malawians, who he said are particularly affected by the current situation, expressed concerns about the delays in payment of the exit package and possible neglect of survivors. 

“This whole thing is a drama,” he said, citing concerns with payments.

“For instance, the system of verification of survivors’ contact details for the exit package took close to seven weeks. There are three shelters but priority has been given to the Hofland shelter, but many other people in other shelters have been neglected.

“While others have received messages stipulating the exit package amount and where they can draw the money from, when they try to do so it says the money has been withdrawn.

“Others have just not received the money or message at all.”

Johannesburg building fire

A man carrying s foam mattress in front of the building that burnt down, on the corner Alberts and Delvers streets in Johannesburg. 1 September, 2023. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

Clarifying the delays with the disbursements of the exit package, Pretty Mncube, director of the NGO Action for Conflict Transformation, which is working with SARCS to administer the funds, told Daily Maverick the delay was primarily owing to obtaining accurate contact details from survivors.

“On the 6th of October people signed to confirm if the contact details they had given were correct because we were trying to make sure that everyone gets something. We know and are fully aware that migrants in the shelters don’t have identity documents.

“When they go to Shoprite they will request identity documents and it’s the same if they go to the bank, they will require the documents to redeem their vouchers. So plan B was to use cellphone numbers for people to receive e-wallet.”

Mncube added: “People have been confirming numbers for the past two weeks. The delay was not on our side, it was on the survivors’ side to give us the correct contact details… We were also trying to see if we could get support from other organisations or sponsors that can assist with small phones and numbers again; the challenge was getting them registered. Finally, the list was sent and we started with people at the shelter.” 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Joburg’s heart of darkness

With some of the survivors left in the shelters awaiting assistance, concerns over potential eviction linger since their temporary stay has long expired. According to the manager at the Hofland Recreational Centre, the venue has been booked for events and the longer the victims stay, the more it inconveniences those who have booked.

Shortly after the fire, Gauteng premier Panyaza Lesufi announced that a commission of inquiry would be established.

The inquiry, headed by retired Justice Sisi Khampepe and scheduled to begin on Thursday, 26 October, will investigate the events surrounding the fire and, more generally, the prevalence of “hijacked buildings” in Johannesburg’s inner city. DM

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