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From safe haven to hijacked den – Marshalltown fire inquiry hears of building horrors as confessed arsonist appears in court

From safe haven to hijacked den – Marshalltown fire inquiry hears of building horrors as confessed arsonist appears in court
A K9 unit member at the Usindiso building in Marshalltown, Johannesburg, that burnt down on 31 August 2023, leaving 77 people dead. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

Sithembiso Lawrence Mdlalose, who confessed to starting the deadly Marshalltown fire, abandoned his bail application during court proceedings this week. Meanwhile, at the commission of inquiry into the blaze, residents explained how what was once a safe haven was beset by crime. Inside the building, 200 shacks were erected inside — 180 on the ground floor and 20 on other floors, according to testimony.

Sithembiso Lawrence Mdlalose (29), who confessed to starting the fire that resulted in the loss of 76 lives at the Usindiso building in Marshalltown on 31 August, abandoned his bail application during a brief appearance at the Johannesburg Magistrates’ Court on Thursday.

Mdlalose appeared after the matter was postponed on 25 January for the authorities to verify his identity and the addresses he provided to the court.

On Thursday, the court heard that Home Affairs needed another week to confirm his identity. It also heard that the addresses Mdlalose provided were invalid and that he lived on the streets.

Mdlalose faces charges of arson, 76 counts of murder and 86 counts of attempted murder after admitting to having started the fire, which also left hundreds of people displaced.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Man claiming to have started Joburg Marshalltown inferno faces murder charges

Daily Maverick and other media outlets had reported that 77 people were killed in the fire, relying on information from the Gauteng Health Department and activists.

However, National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) spokesperson Phindi Mjonondwane clarified that 76 people died in the fire. Officials had arrived at the figure of 77 fatalities after they found a limb they believed was unaccounted for.

“At first, they thought it was a limb of an unaccounted body, but later confirmed it to belong to one of the 76 bodies,” Mjonondwane told Daily Maverick.

Mdlalose’s case was postponed to 6 March for further investigation and for him to visit the scene of the fire with investigators. He remains in custody.

On 23 January, Mdlalose confessed before the commission of inquiry into the fire that he started the blaze. He said he assaulted, and then strangled and set alight a man who had been brought to the ground floor of the building at 80 Albert Street, Marshalltown. He said he started the fire to cover up the murder.

He claimed there were more bodies in the building even before the fire started.

Mdlalose’s version was seemingly corroborated by some of the victims’ testimonials heard this week before the commission chaired by Justice Sisi Khampepe.

joburg fire witness

The devastating fire at the Usindiso building in Marshalltown, Johannesburg, that claimed 77 lives on 31 August 2023. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

The sealed-off entrance to the Usindiso building in Marshalltown, Johannesburg. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

A recycler passes the sealed-off Usindiso building in Marshalltown, Johannesburg, on 1 February 2024. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

Matching narratives

S’phiwe Ngcobo, from KwaNongoma in KwaZulu-Natal, lived in the building for four years.  On Tuesday, she told the commission, “On the 31st of August 2023 at around midnight, which was during the load shedding schedule, I was outside the building. I heard someone screaming for a long time, which was normal in the building. While the scream could not be located, it felt like he was being beaten up or tortured.

“Soon after the scream, another [person] screamed that there was a fire. It was not an ordinary fire and spread through so quickly, and I could not go back inside to fetch my children who had been sleeping inside my room in the building. It seemed the fire had started in the middle rooms on the ground floor, and spread to other rooms and all the exit points.”

One of Ngcobo’s children, Bandile, died from smoke inhalation, while her other child survived the fire with thigh burns.

Read more in Daily Maverick: A building and lives left to burn – 80 Albert Street must be remembered in this way

Another former resident of the building, Simon Mzenga, said all sorts of criminal activities occurred in the building, ranging from the sale of drugs to kidnapping, prostitution and robberies.

“There was a lot of crime inside and outside the building happening throughout the day. A person could get robbed or mugged in the streets and the perpetrators would run inside the building. Or people you have seen in and around the building rob you in the building. On various occasions, I witnessed people being arrested by the police for different crimes in the building.” 

Andrew Chinah, a human rights activist closely working with victims of the fire, said at least 340 written statements were collected from victims. However, only 15 witnesses would testify before the inquiry, given that many of the narratives were similar.

A heritage plague at the Usindiso building in Marshalltown, Johannesburg, on 1 February 2024. The building caught fire on 31 August 2023, leaving 77 people dead. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

Metro police are stationed outside the Usindiso building in Marshalltown, Johannesburg, on 1 February 2024. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

A shoe remains inside the Usindiso building in Marshalltown, Johannesburg, 1 February 2024. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

A home, until it wasn’t 

The building initially housed Usindiso Ministries, a haven for abused women and children managed by Pastor J Bradley. Strict rules and regulations were enforced at the building to ensure the safety of the women and their children.

On Monday, Nokwazi Cele told the inquiry that in those days there was a cook who provided daily meals, and a crèche that looked after children while their mothers worked or sought employment. It was home and felt safe.

However, the shelter faced financial struggles, which led to Bradley leaving,  and then the women and children in the building were no longer safe.

There was an influx of people, mostly men from the neighbouring informal settlement emaXhoseni and from another nearby property called Myamandawo. They forced their way inside and engaged in criminal activities, Cele said.

The building was hijacked between 2019 and 2020.  

Another former resident, Daniel Mboza, said the building’s population grew to the extent that about 200 shacks were erected inside — 180 on the ground floor and 20 on other floors. He said the shacks were built with the permission of a Johannesburg councillor, who was not named.

“The councillor said the building was dangerous and could collapse at any point during a stampede. But he allowed the shacks to be erected. He was clearly a landlord and the shacks belonged to him, and the brick and mortar rooms to someone else.”

Mboza said those in charge targeted foreign nationals desperately looking for a place to stay rather than locals because they would ask too many questions about how things were run. He said foreign nationals were charged rent while most locals lived there for free.

‘Crime was the norm’

Kenneth Dube, a former resident, testified that conditions in the building were good until it became overcrowded. He said there was a lot of theft of taps and gates, and they were sold to scrapyards. “Crime was a norm. You would feel free only when you are outside the building, but when you had to go back inside, that was when you would get nervous because you wouldn’t know if you would make it safely into your room,” Dube said. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Gabriel Ngcobo says:

    These buildings and its residents have become a nuisance and menace to tax-paying South Africans that frequent the CBD. I have watched Johannesburg deteriorate over the years and it pained me, because I went to Luthuli House, John Vorster and various governmental departments within the city to voice my concerns. All looked at me like a maniac that needed psychiatrically hospital admission. ANC have killed anything and everything that we South Africans worked hard for under the custodian of the apartheid state. Sadly, when human saviors like Herman Mashaba and Gayton Mackenzie arise to save the little of what is left of our country and Jozi. The apartheid style, anti-South African-blacks and anti-patriotic NGOs that have become nemesis of the people (Helen Suzman Foundation) impede their endeavors. Challenges and anarchy of once glorious, glamorous and famous Jozi are controlled from the high echelons of society. The political elites benefit from the chaos.

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