Deadly blaze in Joburg prompts debate over ‘hijacked’ buildings

JOHANNESBURG-Search dogs looked for bodies on Friday in a Johannesburg building that went up in flames killing dozens and forcing South Africa to confront an illegal housing “crisis”.
At least 74 people including 12 children died as fire ripped through the five-storey building in the early hours on Thursday. Authorities asked relatives to go to a morgue in Soweto to identify the victims, as the search continued at the site.
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.

ePaper - Nawaiwaqt