Blaze at five-storey block puts spotlight on dangerous state of ‘hijacked’ city buildings occupied by vulnerable residents
Simon Allison in Johannesburg
Survivors of a fire that ripped through a building in Johannesburg described jumping out of windows to escape the flames, as questions were raised about the dilapidated and dangerous state of the informal dwellings housing poor economic migrants in the city.
The death toll rose to 76 on Thursday afternoon after the blaze that took hold shortly after midnight. Dozens more people were being treated for injuries in hospitals around the city. Twelve of those killed were children, the Gauteng health department said.
Rescuers combed the multi-storey building in the centre of Johannesburg floor-by-floor for much of the day. The walls were blackened with soot and all the windows were broken, some by the inferno itself and others by desperate people trying to jump to safety.
When the fire broke out, at about 1am on Thursday, the only door in and out of the building was locked, leaving residents with no way to escape. This was a routine precaution to prevent theft, and to slow down any potential police raids.
An estimated 400 vulnerable people lived in the building at 80 Albert Street on an informal basis; they included extremely poor economic migrants and asylum seekers, predominantly from Malawi, Tanzania and Zimbabwe, and a number of South Africans.
On Thursday hundreds of people gathered behind police lines hoping for information on friends and family members who lived in the building. “We have not been told anything,” said Mpathu Motani, who was waiting for news of her sister. “We are feeling very bad.”
Omar Arafat, from Malawi, who lived in the building, said he was woken up at about 1am by loud bangs and screams of “fire, fire”. He rushed for the building’s front door, but his path was blocked by flames. With no other avenue of escape he broke a window in his third-storey room and jumped.
He said he did not remember anything else. “I was out for three hours,” he said. When he regained consciousness he was surrounded by fire engines and ambulances. There were dozens of bodies on the road around him. “When I got up, I thought, where is my sister?”
Joyce Adam, Arafat’s sister, lived in the building and had yet to be accounted for. Her two-year-old daughter, who was thrown out of a window and caught by people at ground level, was being cared for by other relatives.
Musa, a shopkeeper from Tanzania, also said he jumped from this room on the third floor. Somehow, he escaped injury. His brother, Said, was less fortunate, he broke his back on impact and died shortly afterwards.
In addition to the dozens of emergency service and police vehicles, local government officials and politicians gathered outside the building.
“This is a tragedy of immeasurable proportions,” said Mmusi Maimane, leader of the Build One South Africa party. He said living conditions in the building should never have been allowed to get so bad. “It’s symptomatic of law enforcement in the city that has all but collapsed.”
Dumisani Baleni, a provincial spokesperson for the Economic Freedom Fighters party, also speaking at the scene, said: “This building was flagged as not safe for inhabitants.” His party is currently part of the city’s fragile governing coalition.
The building is in the heart of Johannesburg’s dilapidated central business district, and is one of hundreds “hijacked” – unlawfully occupied and receiving little in the way of public services. It is owned by the City of Johannesburg, but the municipality took no active role in managing or maintaining the building. Instead, according to residents who spoke to the Guardian, rent was paid to a syndicate who controlled the building. Rooms cost about R1,000 (£42) a month.
Social media footage showing the fire at the Johannesburg block early on Thursday morning. Photograph: X/@ODIRILERAM/Reuters
Residents said little to no maintenance was carried out on the premises and there were no fire extinguishers or emergency exits. An unreliable electricity supply meant that paraffin lamps and candles were used for lighting, and portable gas stoves for cooking. The water supply was sporadic.
At the front entrance is a blue plaque signifying the historical significance of the building – 80 Albert Street was the office of the Non-European Affairs Department, established by the apartheid government in 1954 to administer its hated pass laws, which restricted the movement of black people. “The ‘dompas’ which controlled the movement of African people was issued here,” the plaque reads.
Baleni estimated that there were more than 1,000 buildings in central Johannesburg in a similar state of neglect – a precipitous decline for what was once the country’s richest suburb.
He said that the city had repeatedly tried to “resolve the question” of illegally occupied buildings, with a strategy aiming to clear them out one by one, but that it had been hampered by legal challenges.
“When you try to do this you get interdicted by certain organisations that seek to interfere,” he said, referring to NGOs such as the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa, and the Inner City Federation, which argue that residents cannot be evicted unless they are provided with adequate alternative accommodation.
“We are saying to the city we don’t mind to clean up those buildings. But they must provide alternative accommodation for those people who are residing there. This building was flagged as not safe for inhabitants,” said the treasurer of the Inner City Federation. “If they said those people must go out, out where? On the street?” The city might have taken more action if the building’s residents had not been predominantly foreigners, the treasurer added. “The constitution also protects [foreigners], it doesn’t matter where they are coming from.”
Gauteng Human Settlements councillor Lebogang Maile said that people displaced by the fire would be provided with alternative housing.
“We’ve agreed that we are not going to deal with people on the basis of their nationality. At this point, we are going to give humanitarian assistance to everyone,” Maile said.