Joburg CBD fire: City official slams NGO over hijacked buildings litigation
A five-storey building caught fire on Thursday, with more than 70 fatalities being recorded so far.
Law enforcement agencies and EMS at Delvers Shelter in Johannesburg on 31 August 2023 after a building caught fire in the CBD. Picture: Nigel Sibanda
The City of Johannesburg says its efforts to tackle the issue of hijacked buildings and create sustainable accommodation for inner-city residents have been hampered by legal matters.
A five-storey building, located on the corner of Delvers and Albert streets in Johannesburg CBD, was engulfed by flames in the early hours of Thursday morning.
While the cause of the fire is currently unknown, City of Joburg Emergency Management Services (EMS) spokesperson Robert Mulaudzi has confirmed 73 fatalities have been recorded so far.
At least 52 people have also sustained injuries as firefighters continue their search and recovery operation.
Addressing the media outside the building, Joburg mayor Kabelo Gwamanda said at least 300 people, including 140 families, have been displaced as a result of the blaze.
“It is unfortunate that we have to keep responding to situations like this,” he said.
Gwamanda said the building was owned by the city, but was leased to an non-governmental organisation (NGO) and later “hijacked”.
“It was not sold, it was leased to an NGO to in fact run their [organisation] to house women to be given relief of some sort and that’s when things escalated out of control because remember when the city leases a building, whoever is taking responsibility needs to make sure that the building is well kept and that they can return it to the city in the condition which they found it in.
“But I cannot be able to project and predict how a business would then find itself in a situation where it is abandoning its operations for one reason or the other,” the mayor told reporters.
Gauteng Human Settlements MEC Lebogang Maile said hijacked buildings are a concern as there is a “chronic problem” of housing in the province.
“There’s at least 1.2 million people who need housing,” the MEC said on Thursday.
Maile said the Johannesburg Social Housing Company (Joshco) has, on record, at least 23 buildings they own and manage.
“[Joshco] also knows of about 100 buildings that might not have owners and we have agreed that we need to have an intergovernmental comprehensive integrated approach of dealing with this.”
The MEC also indicated that psycho-social services and funeral arrangements will be provided to the affected victims “irrespective of their nationality”.
Watch: People outside the Joburg CBD building that caught fire
‘We are always in court’
Meanwhile, City of Johannesburg MMC for Public Safety, Mgcini Tshwaku, criticised the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa (SERI) for taking the city to court. The NGO challenged a number of the metropolitan municipality’s efforts to combat the hijacking of buildings.
“There’s fires, there’s no electricity… [these buildings] need to be closed, but what happens? SERI and their lawyers are litigating us…. we are always in court,” he said.
Tshwaku insisted that the city was was doing something to address the issue of hijacked buildings by moving out residents “floor-by-floor”.
“It’s actually happening, but very slow,” the MMC said.
Meanwhile, City of Joburg’s Transport MMC Kenny Kunene called for an amendment to property law. He alleged that some NGOs work with the syndicates that hijack buildings to prevent evictions.
“The people who were living in the buildings were telling me some of these NGOs are actually on a retainer from syndicates who hijack buildings, so that whenever government wants to evict they take them to court,” he told eNCA.
In May this year, during his two-day stint as acting mayor, Kunene focused on reclaiming hijacked buildings in Johannesburg.
Earlier, Tshwaku indicated that officials from the city’s disaster management team have already been dispatched to begin relief efforts.
“We are going to give [those affected by the fire] the mattresses and all of that. The housing [department] is here as well, meaning that we are going to get them alternative accommodation at this point in time.”