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Councillor accused of acting as landlord for hijacked building to testify in Mashalltown fire inquiry

Councillor accused of acting as landlord for hijacked building to testify in Mashalltown fire inquiry
City of Johannesburg Emergency Management Services firefighters respond to the Usindiso building fire in Marshalltown, Johannesburg on 31 August 2023. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

The Usindiso building, where 76 people died during a fire in 2023, should have been closed in 2018. A city councillor implicated in ‘hijacking’ the building is scheduled to testify next week.

In 2018, an audit inspection by the Department of Social Services recommended that the city-owned building at 80 Albert Street in Marshalltown should be closed because it was uninhabitable. Instead, it was informally occupied until August 2023, when a fire killed 76 people.

On Thursday, 15 February, JPC CEO Helen Botes told the commission of inquiry into the fire that the building had been leased to Usindiso Ministries, an NGO offering shelter, care, education and counselling to abused women and children, on 1 July 2003 for nine years and 11 months. Botes said the NGO was funded and monitored by the provincial Department of Social Development during the term of the lease.

Despite the building being leased, the commission heard that the area where the building was located was in an industrial zone and never rezoned for residential use, nor was there a certificate of occupation for residential purposes. During apartheid, the building was used as a pass office.

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

Usindiso’s lease expired in 2013 and was never renewed due to the NGO’s lack of funding, said Botes. The building continued to operate as a shelter for several years before Usindiso left the site, which led to outsiders occupying the building, commonly referred to as hijacking it, in 2018.

That same year, the audit inspection recommended that the building be shut down as it was uninhabitable. Instead, the JPC approached the Johannesburg Social Housing Company (Joshco) to purchase the building, but that idea never materialised due to Joshco’s lack of funds.

The exact chronology of what transpired that year is not yet clear.

Councillor implicated

A former resident of the Usindiso building, Daniel Mboza, told the commission in January that when he moved into the building in 2019, a City of Johannesburg councillor told them the building “was dangerous and could collapse at any point during a stampede”.

Mboza said the same councillor later granted permission for the erection of 180 shacks on the ground floor and an additional 20 on other floors. 

According to Mboza, the councillor justified his decision by emphasising the need to accommodate more residents. Mboza said, “He was clearly a landlord. He allowed the erection of more shacks.”

Mboza said residents of the building adapted to the situation by letting their rooms, effectively becoming landlords themselves. Foreign nationals were reportedly targeted as many believed they would be more willing to pay rent.

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

S’phamandla ‘Mas’gewuza’ Sibiya, a former resident of the Usindiso building who had lived there since 2018, informed the commission that they had initiated meetings with the councillor before occupying the building. 

Sibiya said they made the move from “eMaXhoseni” – shacks located next to Usindiso – due to recurrent flooding and after discovering that Usindiso was no longer a shelter for women and children. He said the women living there were reportedly selling rooms and items from the building, including electrical connections.

The councillor’s name has surfaced multiple times in other victims’ testimonies as one of the landlords connected to the building. He is expected to testify at the commission on Tuesday, 20 February.

Daily Maverick sought guidance from the commission on whether the councillor’s name could be published before he testified. The inquiry’s secretary said the issue was with chairperson Justice Sisi Khampepe, who had not provided clarity at the time of writing.

Daily Maverick asked the councillor for comment. His response was, “I think it’s better that I present at the commission first and I can answer all your questions. I will be going there soon, but not sure about the date.”

A Johannesburg councillor from the IFP was arrested last year in connection with an alleged hijacked property in Denver that the city was looking at to house the survivors of the Usindiso fire.

While that councillor was released without being charged and is reportedly considering suing the city, it raised concerns about a possible broader trend of city officials being implicated in hijacking buildings.

City of Johannesburg spokesperson Nthatisi Modingoane said the city’s anti-fraud and corruption unit had received no such reports.

At this stage, [Group Forensics and Investigation Services] is not aware of any cases of property hijackings levelled against the City of Johannesburg councillors.

“The only alleged incident reported previously in Denver was handed over to the SAPS and no confirmation or formal report has been received this far.”

The implicated councillor’s impending testimony stands as a pivotal moment in unravelling the tapestry of the building’s management and the subsequent impact on its residents.

The first part of the inquiry is probing the origin of the fire. Sithembiso Lawrence Mdlalose recently confessed to starting the deadly Marshalltown fire and has been charged with 76 murders.

He abandoned his bail application during court proceedings at his last court appearance on 1 February. He is expected back in court on 6 March.

The inquiry will also investigate the pervasive issue of hijacked buildings in the city, which is expected to lead to meaningful recommendations to deal with this ongoing problem in Johannesburg. DM

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