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Albert Street fire survivors evicted from shelter and taken to deportation centre

Albert Street fire survivors evicted from shelter and taken to deportation centre
Victims of Albert street fire being moved from Hofland Park Community Centre to a shelter near Denver informal settlement. (Photo: Naledi Sikhakhane)

Survivors of the fire in August at 80 Albert Street in Johannesburg were on Wednesday evicted from the Hofland Park Recreational Centre, where many had been given shelter by the City of Johannesburg. Most were sent to the Lindela Repatriation Centre, with Home Affairs claiming they were undocumented migrants.

Nosibongile Majwababa (33) was alarmed by the removal trucks and minibuses parked inside the Hofland Park Recreational Centre on Wednesday, 15 November. She asked a fellow resident, “Are they chasing us out? Why are they forcing us to leave?”

She is one of the many survivors of the devastating fire in August that killed 77 people in the Usindiso building at 80 Albert Street in Johannesburg. The City of Johannesburg provided the survivors with temporary accommodation at three sites, including the Hofland Park Recreational Centre in Bezuidenhout Valley.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Survivors of Joburg’s Marshalltown fire left in limbo, hungry and desperate, after state’s empty promises

On Wednesday morning, Kopanang Africa Against Xenophobia (KAAX), a coalition of civil society organisations rallying against xenophobia in SA, sounded the alarm when “a city councillor, Home Affairs officials and various authorities arrived and locked the gates. Alarmingly, residents are being informed of their impending eviction.”

When Daily Maverick arrived, the gates were locked and authorities were helping people pack their belongings on a truck. Blankets and clothes were scattered on the grass as people begrudgingly sorted through their possessions.

albert street fire survivors

A city councillor, Home Affairs officials and other authorities arrived and locked the gates, surprising residents with the eviction. (Photo: Naledi Sikhakhane)

Most were detained and sent to the Lindela Repatriation Centre — a detention centre for undocumented migrants. 

KAAX said the fire survivors, already traumatised by the blaze, were being forced to undergo biometric verification to determine their passport status. It described the process as deeply concerning, particularly as many had lost their documents in the fire.

The coalition said it “stands in solidarity with all victims of the Albert Street fire. We condemn the eviction of these individuals under such dire circumstances and call for an immediate cessation of these inhumane actions.”

It has been reported that South African nationals will be moved to the Denver temporary relocation area, while those without passports face arrest.

‘I don’t feel safe’

Majwababa said she believed the Denver site would be dangerous.

“They never consulted us; they mentioned we would go to shacks in Denver. The people in Denver said they don’t want people from town because they say there will be crime in the area. I don’t feel safe going there, especially when I think of how shacks burn easily.”

Majwababa said they were given R2,000 each in October by the South African Red Cross Society to help them move out of Hofland and rent a place.

“It’s not that we are ungrateful but when they take you and drop you in the middle of town thinking you can find a place to rent with R2,000, it shows they didn’t think realistically.

“We have been mistreated a lot … we don’t want to go until we get a safe place.”

Read more in Daily Maverick: Albert Street fire survivors still looking for help amid eviction fears as probe into tragedy set to begin

Neo Goba, from the City of Johannesburg’s human settlements department, said: “The Department of Human Settlements has an obligation to evacuate the victims of the fire and provide them with temporary shelter at Hofland Recreation Centre. 

“However, due to the facility not being a permanent shelter and belonging to another sister entity, the victims have to vacate the premises. The Hofland Recreation Centre is used for other activities such as community meetings and private functions, and since the IEC will be opening up for the first voter registration this weekend, the venue will be utilised for that particular activity into which an agreement has been entered into with the city.

“The city has therefore identified the Denver Temporary Relocation Area informal settlements as an area where it intends to relocate the victims who qualify for temporary emergency accommodation [TEA], which is scheduled to come into effect today; hence the Department of Home Affairs can assist in identifying those individuals who are in the country legally and illegally.”  

Goba said TEA was only for South African citizens. Clause 8 of the city’s TEA policy states: “Illegal foreigners and/or prohibited persons as defined by the Immigration Act will be attended to but dealt with in consultation with the Department of Home Affairs.”

He said section 32 of the Immigration Act 13 of 2002 provides that, “Any illegal foreigner shall depart unless authorised by the Department to remain in the Republic pending his or her application for status” and “Any illegal foreigner shall be deported”.

“Therefore, the Department of Human Settlements is not effecting an eviction. The sheriff is affecting the eviction as per the court order,” Goba said.

Legal action

Candice Pillay, the head of social impact law at Norton Rose Fulbright, wrote an urgent letter to the Gauteng government and the Khampepe Commission of Inquiry, which was set up to establish the causes of the Albert Street fire, stating the eviction would sabotage the inquiry and that they would challenge the eviction in court.

“This is tantamount to an illegal eviction — it exacerbates the existing humanitarian crisis and disregards the constitutional rights of the residents, who are already deeply traumatised by the fire,” the letter reads.

“Furthermore, where foreign nationals are concerned, the conduct of the authorities completely disregards the fact that many residents lost all of their immigration documents (including asylum papers and passports) in the fire.”

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

Pillay said scattering victims all over the city would make them hard to trace when it was time to testify at the inquiry.

“The commission risks losing out on invaluable testimony as individuals who could have provided crucial information about the fire and the Usindiso building in general will either be too afraid to testify or impossible to locate.”

Norton Rose Fulbright represents the Johannesburg Fire Victims Support Group, a voluntary association of survivors of the fire at the Usindiso building.

On Wednesday, the Hofland residents were grouped according to their nationalities before each group was ordered to go inside and remove their belongings.

Those who were loaded on to a bus heading to the Lindela Repatriation Centre, yelled: “This is an abuse of human rights”, “We will be back” and “You are breaking the law.”

Local complaints

Bezuidenhout Valley residents who live near the Hofland centre accused those sheltered there of harassing and robbing people in the streets.

“We had a meeting last week Saturday to say we do not want them here. They are harassing people here on the streets, especially when they are intoxicated. In our meeting, we wanted to polish up plans to go and have a sit-in at the premises of the NGO that is fighting to keep them here,’’ resident Moosa Ismail (52) said.

“They knock at your gate, they ask you for R2 and if you don’t have it they swear you,” Ismail said.

A resident, who asked to remain anonymous because she was worried about her job as a nurse, said that last Wednesday a resident was robbed by some men who ran into the centre.

“Everything here was done by the book. No law was broken and no human rights were violated,” DA councillor Carlos Da Rocha told Daily Maverick while the shelter’s residents were being removed. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Ben Harper says:

    Bye Bye so sad, too bad

  • Vusi Dladla says:

    I am sure that since some of these residents lost their documents, biometric tests will verify their status. Well done DHA. This is long overdue.

  • andrew farrer says:

    . . . were being forced to undergo biometric verification to determine their passport status. It described the process as deeply concerning . .. – really, deeply concerning IF YOU’RE here illegally. How is having your fingerprints scanned “concerning”? they do it everytime they unlock their phone!

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