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Almost two months later, City of Joburg struggles to resolve Marshalltown fire problems

Almost two months later, City of Joburg struggles to resolve Marshalltown fire problems
A mourner lights a candle and lays flowers at the the scene of the deadly 31 August Marshalltown fire in Johannesburg. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

Despite several complications, the Gauteng health department says it intends to explore all identification processes before resorting to pauper burials for any fire victims.

The processing of the Marshalltown fire victims has been complicated as several victims lost their documents in the blaze, while others reported theirs stolen. The process was also frustrated by several undocumented foreign nationals who were reluctant to turn up despite requiring assistance. 

“Even some South Africans who lost their ID documents have not been assisted,” activist and member of the Johannesburg Fire Response Action Group, Tessa Dooms, said. 

“There are also families who are willing to be repatriated, but this cannot happen because their families’ bodies are still at the mortuary,” Dooms said. 

“They cannot be repatriated because there is no one to assist them,” she said. 

At least 77 people died and dozens of others were injured when a fire tore through a run-down hijacked building (Usindiso House) in the Johannesburg CBD on 31 August.

Read more in Daily Maverick: More help needed as Joburg fire victims struggle to piece their lives back together

Unclaimed bodies

As of 25 October 2023, a total of 43 bodies of those who died in the Marshalltown fire have been claimed from the Diepkloof mortuary. The government centralised the identification process to the mortuary for ease of access. 

These figures suggest that more than half of the bodies have been claimed. 

“A total of 33 bodies are still in our facility in Diepkloof,” health department spokesperson Motaletale Modiba said.

The department also revealed that 12 clearly identifiable bodies had been claimed by families.

“Outside the initial 12 identifiable bodies, a total of 31 – inclusive of bodies with identifying features and burnt beyond recognition – have been identified and claimed,” Modiba said.

On what happens when the maximum time which a body can be kept lapses, the department said: “This will be addressed once the department has explored all the identification processes. At this stage, all bodies are still treated as current (without time limit) until all the processes are completed (DNA processing, fingerprints etc),” Modiba said. 

In terms of the National Health Act, a body not identified within 30 days after death becomes the responsibility of the state. Upon the lapsing of this period, the state can then choose to arrange a pauper’s burial.

“I have been coming here (the Hofland Centre) for the past four days because I am seeking help to identify and bury my dead brother, but I have no money,” Nomcebo Ndlovu told Daily Maverick last week.

“My brother and [his] wife stayed at the building. I know my brother is at the mortuary but I still don’t know the whereabouts of his wife and daughter,” Ndlovu said.

Disaster

In a 5 October letter to the Presidency, the Johannesburg Fire Response Action Group made several requests, including that the fire be declared a disaster. The group said this would ensure coordinated government efforts.

City of Johannesburg spokesperson Nthatisi Modingoane said the fire could not be declared a disaster as it did not meet the legislated criteria for such a classification.

“Therefore, no provision was made for temporary emergency accommodation as prescribed by the Disaster Management Act for disaster situations. However, it was established that there was a need for an emergency shelter,” said Modingoane. 

“In terms of the Disaster Management Act, as with any incident, the Disaster Management Centre, in consultation with senior executives, assesses the magnitude and severity of the incident to determine its impact and the course of action,” he explained. 

“The requirement is to provide emergency shelter, relief and nutrition for a short period, not exceeding 72 hours.” 

Madingoane said, however, that each case was evaluated on its own merits. He said the emergency shelter provision was extended when the displaced could not immediately be integrated into society after 72 hours.

“In this case, it was extended on a week-by-week basis,” Modingoane said. 

According to the city, as of 23 October, of the 175 families initially registered, 10 South African women and 11 Malawians – including eight children below the age of 10 – remain in the shelter.

Another eight women are affected by payment issues, and three families/individuals are still searching for accommodation.

The Red Cross secured some funds which were offered as an “exit package”. Madingoane did not reveal how much money the Red Cross had secured. He said in determining how much each family received, their previous rent was one of the factors considered. He said, as a result, a figure of R4,000 per family was arrived at.

Complications

“We also have 45 adult males, 36 Tanzanians and nine Malawians. Most of the Tanzanian men received their money, but refused to leave the emergency shelter, instead demanding more money,” said Madingoane.

He said some Tanzanian nationals had demanded to be placed in another shelter, while others wanted R15,000. Some who registered as families claimed not to be family any more and wanted R4,000 each, he said.

“All the remaining Malawian gentlemen are affected by the payment issues. The Red Cross assured disaster management that they are working on the payment issues and will resolve them soon,” Madingoane said

“I am not ready to face the officials because I don’t know what might happen, but I’m very worried about the state of my brother’s body at the mortuary,” said a Zimbabwean man last week.

He said he had just been released after being arrested for being an illegal immigrant.

“If I face the officials, it will not be until I have some form of documentation,” he said.

“I received the R4,000 and I’m grateful, even though it’s not enough. I am just happy to still be alive.”

Madingoane said: “Once the payment issues of the remaining eight females and about 15 men have been resolved, all those who wish to leave will be assisted with transport to Soweto, Ekurhuleni, the Joburg CBD and surrounding areas.”

In response, Tessa Dooms said: “All we are saying is, remove them in a proper fashion. In a way that makes sense.”

She added: “There has been a consistent lack of a proper plan.” DM

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