Joburg fire toll rises as S.Africa debates ‘hijacked’ buildingsFri, 01 Sep 2023 15:56:50 GMT

The death toll from a fire that engulfed a Johannesburg building rose to 76, authorities said on Friday as relatives of the victims waited outside a mortuary to identify their loved ones. Health Minister Joe Phaahla said two people died in hospital a day after flames ripped through the five-storey building forcing South Africa to confront an illegal housing “crisis”.”We’ve got 76 fatalities,” Phaahla told reporters, after visiting some of the more than 60 people who were injured and receiving treatment at healthcare facilities in the city. Authorities were at work to identify the victims, whose bodies were brought to a morgue in Soweto. Thembalethu Mpahlaza, the head of forensics services in Johannesburg’s Gauteng province, said the process would require DNA tests as most were “burnt beyond recognition”. There were only “12 bodies that are identifiable, that can be viewed,” he told reporters outside the mortuary. Earlier in the day, search dogs combed the charred building while charity workers brought blankets, clothing and other goods to more than 100 survivors accommodated at a Johannesburg shelter.The fire has reopened a debate about so-called hijacked buildings — old disused blocks that have fallen under the control of criminal syndicates who collect rent from squatters.President Cyril Ramaphosa said it was “a wake-up call for us to begin to address the situation of housing in the inner cities” as he visited the site late on Thursday.The building, located in an economically depressed, crime-ridden area, was owned by the municipality and listed as a heritage site.During the apartheid era, black South Africans would go there for papers allowing them to access white areas for work. City authorities said it was last used as a shelter for abused women but was “invaded and hijacked” towards the end of the past decade. Police raided the building in 2019, arresting 140 foreign nationals. But in a country struggling with massive crime rates, little changed.Johannesburg city manager Floyd Brink told reporters on Thursday that police had opened a case following the raid but “no update” was immediately available. About 200 families were thought to be living at the premises at the time of the fire, he said.Authorities estimated that more than “80 shacks” were set up inside.- ‘Catastrophe waiting to happen’ -Illegal occupation of abandoned buildings in downtown Johannesburg, which slumped into decay and decline in the 1990s, is widespread. After years of sanctions during the 1980s, the advent of democracy in 1994 saw many white-owned businesses move out to security-fenced suburbs.Entire blocks were left empty. “Many of these abandoned buildings are controlled by gangs who rent out the space,” said Mervyn Cirota, a provincial councillor in Johannesburg’s Gauteng province from the opposition Democratic Alliance party.”Hijacked” buildings are overcrowded by design, as criminals try to squeeze as much money as possible out of them, said Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand studying informal settlements. They often have no toilets, electricity or water, said Cirota, describing the fire as a “catastrophe waiting to happen”. – ‘Urgent solutions’ – It was not immediately clear what caused the blaze, one of the deadliest worldwide in recent years. Authorities said candles used for lighting inside the structure or stoves and other heating devices were a likely cause.Bodies were discovered piled up at a security gate that was closed, preventing people from escaping, an official said.Residents told AFP each of the five floors had a gate that was kept locked at night to keep out police and possible intruders.”All metropolitan municipalities must urgently find solutions to the hijacked building crisis in major cities,” said lawmaker China Dodovu, chairman of a parliamentary committee on settlements. South Africa, with the continent’s most industrialised economy, attracts millions of migrants, many undocumented, from other African nations.The world’s most unequal society, it has a shortage of social housing despite building millions of homes after the advent of democracy.Those without papers do not qualify for assistance and even those who do can expect to wait for more than a decade for a spot, said Huchzermeyer.Most of those living at the building were foreigners, a resident said.