For survivors of Johannesburg building fire, justice must include dignified housing

While a commission is probing the uSindiso building fire, that killed 76, social justice organizations have amplified calls to address the severe lack of affordable housing

February 02, 2024 by Peoples Dispatch
Photo: GovernmentZA via Flickr

A government-appointed Commission of Inquiry continued hearings this week in relation to a deadly fire in Johannesburg’s inner city on August 31, 2023. The blaze at the uSindiso building in Marshalltown caused the deaths of 76 people and injured over 80 others, in what is considered one of the worst such incidents in the country’s history.

On January 24, South African police arrested a 29-year-old man after he allegedly claimed responsibility for the fire while appearing as a witness before the Commission. According to Eyewitness News, he told the panel that the fire had spread after he strangled a person to death and set fire to the body.

The man stated that he had been under the influence of a drug at the time, supplied by someone in the building who had ordered him to carry out the killing. He has been charged with 76 counts of premeditated murder, 86 counts of attempted murder, and one of arson, while the court proceedings have been postponed as the Commission’s hearings continue. 

Meanwhile, the Commission has continued to hear testimonies from survivors of the fire, including harrowing accounts of people having jumped out of the second and fourth floors of the five-storey building, and being unable to rescue their children from the fire. Emergency services members had stated in the aftermath of the blaze that most of the fire escapes in the building had been chained shut on the night of August 31, making the fire worse. 

As the inquiry proceeds, social justice and working class movements and organizations in the country have raised calls for justice and compensation for the victims and survivors but also full accountability from the city, highlighting the severe housing crisis in Johannesburg that has forced poor and vulnerable people to live in hazardous conditions without access to basic services. 

Also watch: Johannesburg fire is the result of neglect and discrimination against poor and workers

Survivors left in the lurch 

Demands for accountability and action have become especially urgent given that 30 to 40 families displaced due to the fire have been housed, by the government, in tin shacks in the Denver informal settlements area, which was repeatedly flooded amid heavy rains in December and January.

“The Settlement is built on top of a basin, which means that water from the upper-lying areas of Johannesburg flows into it creating flooding whenever there are rains. We were aware of this issue and we had raised it when it came to relocating the families,” Mametlwe Sebei, president of General Industries Workers Union of South Africa (GIWUSA), and who is working with the Marshalltown Fire Justice Campaign told Peoples Dispatch.

In November, the Johannesburg High Court ruled that the City officials must take steps to improve the living conditions of the survivors. This included the provision of a water drainage system, lavatory facilities, prepaid electricity, and patrolling by security. However, Sebei stated that the electricity and drainage facilities had not been provided and security was infrequent, raising safety concerns for the residents, many of whom were single mothers. 

“These people are not being assisted in rebuilding their lives, when the area was flooded, they lost their food. Some have been forced to spend the whole night standing on their feet, carrying their children on their back,” Sebei said. 

Meanwhile, “the whole approach of the City and the political establishment was to blame the victims and to scapegoat migrants, instead of taking responsibility for the fact that they had created the conditions for this tragedy to occur, including by the criminal neglect of such buildings which has let them to be “hijacked” by organized criminal groups,” he added. 

Immediately after the fire, Johannesburg Speaker Colleen Makhubele stated that the local authorities had been trying to deal with the issue but had been prevented by “certain NGOs.” Another official stated that organizations, particularly the Socio-Economic Rights Institute (SERI) — a legal services and advocacy organization dealing with key issues facing vulnerable communities, including the right to housing— had been “litigating.” 

In response, SERI clarified that it had never litigated against the City in relation to the building and had “consistently tried to engage the City to improve conditions in its shelters but to no avail.” 

Meanwhile, Kenny Kunene, member of the Mayoral Committee for transport, called for the “mass deportation of illegal immigrants who are staying in these buildings that are taking rent. We must arrest and mass-deport all of them; only then will you see a cleaner Johannesburg…” 

South Africa has witnessed a surge in xenophobic rhetoric, hate speech and violence, much of which has been associated with Operation Dudula, a “vigilante” group and now a registered political party. This rhetoric, which places the blame for issues such as unemployment and lack of services on migrants from other African countries, has also been echoed by government officials.

Survivors of the fire who were migrants were evicted from a shelter, made to undergo a verification process, and many were then placed in a detention or “repatriation” center for undocumented migrants, to be deported. However, Sebei stated, a court order was secured which stated that no one can be deported for the duration of the Commission’s proceedings. Uncertainty remains as to what will happen to the survivors in the aftermath. 

In December, advocate Thulani Makhubela was dismissed from the Commission of Inquiry after SERI and the Inner City Federation (ICF) exposed his repeated public support and association with Operation Dudula. Survivors also submitted affidavits to the Commission detailing illegal raids and assaults by the group on the building in May 2023. Members of Operation Dudula returned to the uSindiso building on the morning of the fire carrying whips, and sang celebratory songs.

Progressive movements, including South Africa’s socialist militant shack-dwellers’ movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo, have been engaged in a principled struggle against xenophobia and the scapegoating of poor and vulnerable migrants by the political establishment — both in government and the opposition. 

Nobody is poor because their neighbor was born in another country,” the movement had said in a statement. “All over the world the politicians that serve the rich encourage this nonsense to turn the poor against each other and protect the rich from the anger of the people… We call on all people of good conscience to oppose this sickening xenophobia clearly, directly and bravely, and to work to build the unity of the oppressed across South Africa.” 

Also read: South Africa’s social movements lead resistance to organized xenophobia and state inaction

Lack of housing in Johannesburg’s inner city 

In testimony heard by the Commission this week, survivors revealed that between 180 to 200 shacks had been built inside the uSindiso building. The structures were set up reportedly with the permission of a local city councilor, who has not been named. A witness also stated that rental fees were charged from foreign nationals, and that the councilor had benefited from this. 

Previously the Central Pass Office, controlling the movement of Black people in the city under South Africa’s white-supremacist apartheid rule, the building at 80 Albert Street was converted to the uSindiso Women’s Shelter for abused women and children in 1994. However, in 2018, staff were forced to leave and the shelter was closed down. While the building was under the control of the City, it fell into neglect and what has been called “hijacking”. 

In the aftermath of the uSindiso fire, activists and advocates have amplified attention to the severe housing crisis in South Africa, particularly in Johannesburg — otherwise deemed the “wealthiest city” on the continent. 

The city has a housing backlog of about 500,000 units, with 400,000 families currently on a waiting list that runs over decades. Meanwhile, as of 2022, the city was delivering only 2,500 housing units each financial year, meaning that it would take Johannesburg 200 years to clear its current housing backlog. 

“Not only have we had this backlog since 1994, the situation has worsened as successive administrations, be it the ANC or the Democratic Alliance (DA), have been committed to a neoliberal program which includes cutting spending on key services such as housing,” Sebei said. 

“Johannesburg is also a city where the population is growing, as people are unable to earn a livelihood in rural areas, as manufacturing centers are closing down, and as there is de-industrialization of vast parts of the country under neoliberalism.” 

According to the Marshalltown Fire Justice Campaign, the Commission hearings also revealed that Johannesburg only had between three to five fire engines and one water tank to serve a population of six million people. This is opposed to the requirement of 112 to 120 water tanks and 120 fire engines in a city where 25,000 fire emergency calls are made annually. 

It is the “fundamental failures of the system,” then, which need to be addressed, Sebei said. 

In the past, the City of Johannesburg has responded to the chronic lack of affordable housing, of which unsafe and overcrowded living situations are a product, by resorting to “shock and awe” style militarized raids, forced evictions, and offering tenders to private developers for buildings in the inner city. 

Moreover, “hijacked” buildings, that is buildings where someone other than the owner of the building charges rental fees for people to stay there, have also tended to be conflated with occupied buildings, said Siyabonga Mahlangu from the ICF. The organization was founded in 2015 by a group of low-income inner city residents. 

Most of the buildings in Johannesburg’s inner city are occupied, he said, which means that residents do not pay to live there, and might contribute towards basic services or to fix a maintenance issue. 

In the case of uSindiso building, which is reported to have been “hijacked” between 2019 and 2020, the City of Johannesburg had conducted a raid on the premises in 2019, detaining 140 foreign nationals and arresting one person who was charged with illegally collecting rent. As of an August 31, 2023 statement, there was no update on the case. 

There had been another raid in 2021, during which foreign migrants were detained again. 

The question which arose then was how did the property remain “hijacked,” Mahlangu said, adding that it seemed to indicate that the city itself had abandoned the building because it was failing to provide services. 

He noted further that the separation of people based on citizenship was a violation of the housing code, which states that if ever there is an issue of homelessness, people have to be accommodated regardless of their nationality.

As the Commission of Inquiry proceeds, activist and advocates have warned if the condition of buildings in the inner city is not improved, then tragedies like the uSindiso fire will no longer be an exception.

“The City must immediately implement a public housing program to upgrade these buildings and provide decent housing. Whenever there is a fire, if we look at where people are relocated and housing is built, it is in the townships— which by the deliberate spatial planning under apartheid were meant to keep Black people as far away from cities, which were designated as ‘white areas’,” Sebei said.

“At present, Black workers are spending up to 30% of their already miserable wages on transport.”

He added that the government must work with the residents of these buildings, to place them under their democratic control and management, and to make these buildings part of the public housing stock. This is at a time when South Africa is facing an estimated shortage of 3.7 million housing units, compared to a backlog of 1.5 million in the aftermath of the fall of apartheid in 1994.

Moreover, in order to do so, Sebei stated that there must be a shift away from tendering towards the implementation of a massive public works program and a nationalized construction industry, to build not only housing but other critical infrastructure including hospitals, clinics, universities, and roads.