Maverick Citizen

KHAMPEPE INQUIRY

City of Joburg silent after inquiry finds it responsible for Usindiso fire

City of Joburg silent after inquiry finds it responsible for Usindiso fire
From left: Bodies of some of those who died in the devastating fire are lined up, some covered in blankets, others already in body bags. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla) | Justice Sisi Khampepe, who chairs the commission of inquiry. (Photo: Sydney Seshibedi / Gallo Images)

A commission of inquiry found the City of Johannesburg responsible for the Usindiso blaze that claimed 76 lives. A month after the report’s release, the city still hasn’t responded.

It is less than 90 days until the first anniversary of the devastating fire that broke out in the early hours of 31 August 2023 in a five-story building in Marshalltown in the Johannesburg CBD, killing 76 people, injuring dozens and displacing hundreds.

Of the 76 people who died in the Usindiso fire, 57 were positively identified and 19 have not yet been identified. Of those who were positively identified, 23 were South African, 20 were Malawian, six were Zimbabwean, four were Tanzanian and four were Mozambican.

In the aftermath of the fire, Gauteng Premier Panyaza Lesufi appointed a commission of inquiry led by retired Justice Sisi Khampepe. The first phase of the commission was tasked with determining the cause of the fire and who was responsible. The second phase focuses on the prevalence of hijacked buildings in the city.

The commission’s Phase 1 report was released at the end of April after about seven months of hearings. It found the city and its entities were to blame for the fire.

Despite the building not being zoned for residential use, the city had leased it to Usindiso ministries. When an audit inspection deemed the building uninhabitable after Usindiso’s departure, the recommendation that it should be shut down was not heeded.

Instead, the Johannesburg Property Company attempted to sell the building to the Johannesburg Social Housing Company (Joshco). The sale fell through because of Joshco’s financial constraints. The commission also found that the city was aware the building had been hijacked and its rates and services bills were not being paid.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Usindiso blaze inquiry report lays blame at feet of City of Johannesburg officials

A month later, the city hasn’t responded to the report.

In response to Daily Maverick on 14 May, Mayor Kabelo Gwamanda’s spokesperson, Mlimandlela Ndamase, said the city would provide a comprehensive response to the commission’s findings and report in the next few days.

Ndamase said: “[The city] is still studying the report and consulting the relevant departments and entities to provide such a response. Unfortunately, the city is of the view that given the seriousness of the matter, ad hoc responses would not be appropriate.”

However, three weeks later there is still no response to the commission’s findings and recommendations and the city has not responded to Daily Maverick’s subsequent inquiries.

Delays to Phase 2

The second phase of the Khampepe Inquiry, looking into the prevalence of abandoned, occupied or “hijacked” buildings in Johannesburg, has stalled, with the commission blaming this on logistical issues.

Daily Maverick was told by a trusted source that inspections of hijacked buildings were scheduled to begin on Wednesday, 6 June but that the second part of the commission could not proceed until the city gave its official response to the first phase of the inquiry. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: City of Johannesburg pays lip service to tackling ‘hijacked’ buildings

Gauteng Premier Panyaza Lesufi promised to establish a joint committee to ensure the implementation of the commission’s recommendations.

His spokesperson, Sizwe Pamla, said, “The commission is finalising the second part of its inquiry. The first part is still being interrogated by the relevant stakeholders, especially the Johannesburg municipality, and once they give an official response and the second part of the report is finalised by the commission, a process will begin to form a joint committee.

“This is also important to avoid a piecemeal and disjointed implementation of the commission of inquiry recommendations.”

Steps towards accountability

Meanwhile, the Marshalltown Fire Justice Campaign and Centre for Applied Legal Studies (Cals) have called for accountability, stating they believed the commission’s findings were a step towards attributing accountability for the fire.

“We hope that the report from the commission will go some way to getting justice for the victims and survivors of the fire and … preventing such disasters in future. We should not have a situation where a municipality’s failure to provide basic services leads to the loss of lives.

“We look forward to engaging in the next stage of the commission’s work around the housing crisis in the inner city,” said Thandeka Kathi, head of home, land and rural democracy at Cals.

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

The Socio-Economic Rights Institute (Seri) has advocated for inclusive measures to hold the responsible parties accountable, emphasising the need for transparency and action.

Seri supports the findings of the commission whereby it found that the City of Johannesburg and its entities, including the Johannesburg Property Company (JPC), must bear partial responsibility and/or accountability for the tragedy and that the consequences of the fire would have been mitigated had the city complied with its legal obligations as owner and municipality,” Edward Molopi, Seri’s senior communications and advocacy officer, said.

“We further support the establishment of an implementation committee as announced by Premier Lesufi. We think that this will be important in ensuring that those who bear responsibility are held accountable. It therefore remains important that the composition of this committee is inclusive.” DM

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