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Marshalltown fire case postponed again — accused Sithembiso Mdlalose ditches no-show lawyer

Marshalltown fire case postponed again — accused Sithembiso Mdlalose ditches no-show lawyer
Seventy-six people died in the 31 August 2023 fire in Marshalltown, Johannesburg. (Photos: Supplied / Felix Dlangamandla)

Sithembiso Lawrence Mdlalose confessed in January to starting the Marshalltown fire that killed 76 people and displaced hundreds more, but his court case has been repeatedly postponed. The latest postponement follows Mdlalose’s decision to change legal representation.

The case against Sithembiso Lawrence Mdlalose, who confessed on 23 January 2024 to starting the Marshalltown fire that claimed 76 lives and displaced hundreds of people, has had repeated delays.

Prosecutors first had to verify his identity after which he retracted his initial confessions. The case was postponed on Friday, 12 April to 23 May, when Mdlalose decided to change legal representation after his former lawyer failed to appear in court multiple times.

As legal proceedings stall, the commission of inquiry into the fire, led by former Constitutional Court Justice Sisi Khampepe, is expected to release its first findings on the cause of the fire by the end of April. The second phase of inquiry – focusing on hijacked buildings in Johannesburg – is set to begin in May.

Mdlalose ditched his private legal representative Dumisani Mabunda after Mabunda failed to attend court several times. The postponements resulted in State prosecutor advocate Tshepo Mahange kaMzizi issuing a notice of progress delay, warning of potential consequences if the defence failed to cooperate.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Marshalltown fire: Legal proceedings stall as court is adjourned and commission concludes first phase of work

Mahange kaMzizi told the court there had been various updates in the case that they needed to discuss with the defence; however, Mabunda had yet to avail himself for these discussions.

Mdlalose has now opted to be represented by Legal Aid SA. The latest postponement is to allow his new lawyer to get up to speed with the case and for the State to conclude its investigations, including conducting postmortem and DNA verifications on two outstanding bodies, Mahange kaMzizi said.

At the last count, 20 bodies recovered from the Usindiso building at 80 Albert Street were still unclaimed from the mortuary and 11 were unidentifiable.

Family shocked

The 29-year-old is facing a charge of arson, 76 counts of murder and 86 counts of attempted murder. In his confessions to the inquiry and a magistrate, which he now wants to retract, Mdlalose said he started the fire on 31 August 2023 to conceal a murder he had committed.

While Mdlalose remains in custody, his family still maintains he is not involved, suggesting he may have been influenced by the wrong people.

Described as responsible and bright, although distant in recent months, Mdlalose’s sudden entanglement in such a significant case has left his family reeling. Despite supporting him, they emphasised that if he was proven guilty they would withdraw their backing and allow the law to take its course.

A family member who did not want to be named told Daily Maverick: “Before getting the call from the lawyer, we thought he was dead, because despite [his] not having a consistent number, three months [had] never passed [before] without him calling, but we had not heard from him since October. He would normally call to check in although always in a rush or supposedly busy.

“But every time we have tried to ask about where he resides and what he does to survive, he has not been keen to disclose. So we would just be grateful he called and was okay…

“Getting the call and having the police present at the house to verify his address was a shock as he had never been arrested before, even more so for such a big case. We are still supporting him now because he has not been proven guilty; however, if ever he is proven guilty we will withdraw our support and let the law take its course, because killing is not something to be taken lightly.”

Survivors struggle

As legal proceedings drag on, survivors of the fire continue to face challenges. Those moved by the City of Johannesburg to a temporary shelter in Denver still endure difficult living conditions, including a lack of electricity.

Despite a court order mandating the municipality to improve conditions, little progress has been made. 

In November, the Gauteng Division of the High Court in Johannesburg ordered the city to finalise the installation of water sources, add more toilets and install prepaid electricity. According to a report, the city has yet to provide electricity. 

City spokesperson Nthatisi Modingoane told Daily Maverick the city had been ordered to report back to the court within three months. “As such we will allow the court’s processes to unfold.”

Modingoane did not reply when asked whether the city had submitted its report within three months from November.

Daily Maverick also understands that some of the dozens of former Usindiso residents who were undocumented migrants and were being kept at the Lindela Repatriation Centre have been deported at their request because of poor conditions at the centre and because they did not need to appear at the inquiry. DM

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