In the early hours of Thursday, a devastating fire engulfed a five-storey building situated in the heart of Johannesburg’s Central Business District (CBD). Shockingly, this building, which was under the City of Johannesburg’s ownership, had been neglected. The fire resulted in the tragic loss of at least 74 lives, including 12 children, and left 50 individuals injured as reported by Eyewitness News.
President Cyril Ramaphosa characterised the illegal occupation of this deteriorating building as a catastrophe waiting to happen. The abandoned structure, once intended to provide emergency shelter for women and children, had become occupied by squatters. It was plagued by illegal electricity connections and makeshift room dividers, creating a hazardous environment for more than 200 families.
President Ramaphosa, who cancelled a previously scheduled address to the nation, personally visited the disaster site on that fateful Thursday. He emphasised the importance of addressing the fundamental causes of such a devastating blaze.
“We must confront this issue and remove these criminal elements, as it is precisely such buildings that are seized by criminals who exploit vulnerable individuals and families by collecting rent illegally. There must be law and order in the inner city,” President Ramaphosa declared.
He also called for a crackdown on criminals extorting money from residents living in these deteriorating, lawless buildings.
City of Johannesburg Speaker Colleen Makhubele, along with MMCs Mgcini Tshwaku and Kenny Kunene, as well as former mayor Herman Mashaba, asserted that this catastrophe could have been prevented if not for civil society organisations that frequently dragged the city to court over “illegal evictions.”
City manager Floyd Brink confirmed the city’s ownership of the ill-fated building, providing insights into its troubled history. He explained, “This is a building that we previously leased to the provincial social development department, where they used it specifically as a shelter for abused women. At the conclusion of that particular lease, some of the challenges that were encountered with the occupants, as well as the hostilities and the stalemate, led to the building being invaded and hijacked.”
Regarding the cause of the fire, Brink stated that investigations were ongoing, and the city was committed to diligently probing the incident. Furthermore, he assured that efforts were being made to recover hijacked and illegally occupied buildings within the City of Johannesburg, with plans to address the broader issue of lawlessness in such structures.
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