‘Alarm Bells’ Were Ringing: Johannesburg Officials Faulted Over Deadly Fire

An inquiry into a deadly fire in Johannesburg last August that killed 76 people and exposed a housing crisis in South Africa’s largest city placed the blame on officials who ignored “ringing alarm bells” for years.

The eight-month inquiry, led by a retired constitutional court justice, released its findings in a report on Sunday. The report said that years of inaction by city agencies had allowed the building to fall into lethal disrepair, and singled out a high-ranking official for blame.

“The consequences of the fire would have been mitigated had the city complied with its legal obligations as owner and municipality,” the report said.

In the early hours of Aug. 31, a fire ripped through a derelict building in downtown Johannesburg. Once a women’s shelter, it had been all but abandoned by city agencies although it was owned by the government and managed by the Johannesburg Property Company, a government agency. Instead, about 600 people desperate for affordable accommodation were squatting in the five-story building, creating a tinderbox that would lead to one of the deadliest residential fires in South Africa’s recent history.

While a resident in the building later confessed to setting the fire, the report found that city officials knew about the “distressing conditions” and had allowed the building to become a firetrap. Once known as the Usindiso women’s shelter, the building was taken over by criminal organizations who collected rent.

The structure had no municipal electricity or running water. Instead, residents used the building’s fire hoses and fire extinguishers to collect and store water, and created illegal electricity connections. They erected partitions of wood, cardboard and cloth, built shacks within rooms and cooked on paraffin stoves. Heaps of trash piled up around the building. The structure was known as a haven for crime in the area, and yet law enforcement was virtually nonexistent, the report found.

The city had known about these conditions for at least four years, the report found. Officials raided the building in 2019 and earmarked it for demolition, but took no further action, the report said. Dozens of people were evicted at the time, but the squatters returned in greater numbers.

The city’s chief fire officer should have designated the building for emergency evacuation, the report found, a status that would have meant a faster response time of no more than eight minutes in an emergency such as the Aug. 31 fire. Instead, the first fire trucks arrived 11 minutes after the emergency call, with more arriving 19 minutes after the call. During the inquiry, witnesses said the city’s struggling fire department did not have enough trucks to respond to disasters around Johannesburg.

A spokesman for the mayor’s office on Monday said it had not yet received the public report, and would study its recommendations once it had.

When firefighters reached the scene, they found blocked emergency evacuation points, and exits that had been welded shut by occupants. Stairwells and corridors were being used as makeshift dwellings and fire extinguishers were empty or walled off inside illegal apartments, the report said.

As the fire raged out of control, dozens of people leaped from the top floors. One woman who testified in the inquiry recalled the bone-chilling screams of people trapped behind a steel door. Emergency workers told the commission that they had found 11 bodies behind a steel gate.

During an inquiry session in late January, a startling confession stunned the room full of lawyers and survivors when a 30-year-old man said he had started the fire. The man, Sithembiso Mdlalose, said he had sold drugs for the gangs who operated from the building. On the night of the fire, he told the commission through sobs, he had strangled a man involved in a dispute and tried to set the body alight to hide the evidence. Mr. Mdlalose has been charged with 76 counts of murder.

While the city of Johannesburg did not set the fire, it bore some responsibility for the lives lost, the report found. The commission recommended disciplinary action against officials in charge of the city’s housing, sanitation, electricity and water agencies. It also called for “appropriate action” against the longtime chief executive of the Johannesburg Property Company, Helen Botes, for a “total disregard of the managing of Usindiso building despite knowledge of the disastrous state since at least 2019.” The report did not suggest specific measures.

Ms. Botes is accountable to the mayor’s office, but she has outlasted 10 mayors.

In the aftermath of the fire, an investigation by The Times found that Ms. Botes had faced accusations of corruption and mismanagement of the city’s vast housing portfolio. In testimony to the commission, Ms. Botes blamed illegal squatters for breaking city laws and a constrained city budget for blocking an effective eviction. Like other officials, she also pointed to South Africa’s housing laws, which require the government to find alternative accommodation for evicted residents, as a challenge.

The original death toll was 77, but the report on Sunday revised that to 76. Among the dead were teachers and students in search of affordable accommodation, and dozens of migrants from other African countries who had moved to Johannesburg seeking work. Nineteen victims had yet to be identified. Scores of survivors remain homeless, and have moved into similarly derelict buildings around the city. More than 80 people were injured.

In the months since the fire, city officials bricked up the building and erected barbed wire around its perimeter to prevent desperate squatters from returning. The commission recommended that the building be demolished, and in its place, a commemorative plaque erected to honor the lives lost.

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