JOBURG INNER-CITY BLAZE
Usindiso building fire inquiry to resume this week after multiple delays
The commission of inquiry into the Usindiso building fire at 80 Albert Street in Marshalltown, Johannesburg, which claimed 77 lives, is set to resume on Wednesday.
While the inquiry into the Marshalltown fire is set to resume on 17 January, many of the survivors, now facing new challenges at temporary shelters, are in despair.
In the Denver temporary shelter, where about 300 survivors were relocated from the Bez Valley Recreational Centre, challenges include an inconsistent water supply, lack of electricity, flooding and security concerns.
According to Nigel Branken, an activist working closely with the community, the situation contravenes a court agreement from last year.
In November, the Johannesburg high court ruled that the City of Johannesburg had to improve living conditions at an alternative accommodation site for survivors in Denver. Key improvements included replacing four taps, installing prepaid electricity, finalising additional ablution facilities (including 20 sanitation units, to be serviced weekly), and appointing a security company to prevent land invasions.
City manager Floyd Brink has made assurances that the city’s human settlements department is addressing the issues in Denver.
But, he said, “We need to indicate it is becoming very difficult for us on that one specifically from a humanistic point of view.”
In December, human rights activist Andrew Chinah, who is working closely with the Marshalltown fire survivors, told Daily Maverick that at the last count, the bodies of 42 fire victims were still in a morgue.
The delay in identifying and releasing the bodies is due to several factors, including a backlog in getting DNA samples, bodies that have not been released and remains that have not been claimed.
Read in Daily Maverick: Johannesburg fire – ‘I had to jump out from the third floor with my four-year-old’
The commission of inquiry into the fire, led by retired Constitutional Court Justice Sisi Khampepe, was launched in October 2023 and missed its first deadline of 30 November, the date by which it was supposed to have completed Part A of its investigation, looking into the circumstances leading to the fire and who should be held accountable. Part B will look at the prevalence of hijacked buildings in Johannesburg’s inner city.
According to the Sunday Times, the Gauteng government has granted the inquiry an extension.
“The conclusion of the hearing for Part A was extended to the end of March 2024 and the report is due [at the] end of April 2024. The conclusion of the hearing for Part B was extended to the end of July 2024 and the report is due at the end of August 2024,” the Sunday Times quoted the secretariat of the commission as saying.
During the inquiry’s last sitting in December, a commissioner, advocate Thulani Makhubela was recused following an unopposed application regarding his alleged anti-immigrant sentiments.
The inquiry heard there was suspicion that the anti-immigrant political party Operation Dudula may have started the fire as its members were on the scene after the fire, chanting in excitement, and were also present at the Hofland Shelter during the eviction of survivors.
This was according to Suvania Subroyen, the legal representative of the survivors.
Following Makhubela’s recusal, Operation Dudula has demanded that Khampepe recuse herself from the inquiry, review Makhubela’s recusal, and apologise to the group for referring to it as a “xenophobic and anti-migrant movement”.
According to Thembekile Graham, from the secretariat of the commission, the rules of the inquiry require that Operation Dudula be notified of evidence that implicates it.
“The commission has evidence implicating Operation Dudula as to the cause of the fire. The notice is being finalised for delivery to provide Operation Dudula with an opportunity to state its version and respond to such evidence.”
Graham said Operation Dudula was entitled to submit a recusal application against Khampepe.
“As with any other party, Operation Dudula is entitled, were it so inclined, to bring an application for the recusal of the decision-makers of the commission. To date, there is no such application before the commission. If any application were to be brought, as is the norm with such proceedings, its merits would be the subject matter of a public hearing, to be determined by the chairperson of the commission.” DM