Understanding the devastating fire in central Johannesburg
In the early hours of a fateful morning, central Johannesburg came to a standstill from a crippling fire. 74 souls lost, many injured in the five-storey building, which was converted into temporary housing. The history of the building is as complex as the city itself; From being an apartheid-era court to sheltering abused women, to its eventual decline as an informal settlement, its walls have seen many changes. But the tragedy brings to the fore a larger issue plaguing Johannesburg: the proliferation of "hijacked" buildings.
Disclosure of tragedy
Officers worked cautiously, circling the building to search for survivors. Their efforts brought heart-wrenching scenes: charred bodies were being carried out, children among the dead, and countless more injured. The incident has been regarded as one of the most devastating fires in Johannesburg's recent memory.
Statements of eyewitnesses paint a grim picture
Survivor Wiseman Mapepa recounted his harrowing experience to CNN. Awakened by the screams, he saw that the fire had blocked the exit. His desperate attempts to guide the others to the alternate gate failed as it was locked. Feeling trapped, Mapepa felt a sense of helplessness that is impossible for many of us to understand.
Videos and pictures coming out from the spot are telling a bitter reality. Massive flames engulfed the building while distraught onlookers could do nothing but watch in horror.
Understanding the "Hijacked" Building Crisis
So, what exactly are "hijacked" buildings?
These structures, now prominent in many parts of downtown Johannesburg, are originally abandoned buildings by their original owners or landlords. In their absence, these buildings are often occupied by gangs or gangs. They are then released to South Africans and expatriates who cannot afford more legitimate housing options.
Such systems are far from ideal. The building in question was proof of that. Originally designed to hold a minimum number of occupants, its rooms were further divided, allowing them to accommodate more people than necessary. Such overcrowding often leads to serious violations of basic safety protocols.
The South African government has made efforts to regulate these buildings, but their efforts often fail. And as this tragic incident has highlighted, the consequences can be devastating.
The Big Picture: Informal Settlements in South Africa
Johannesburg is not alone in facing the challenges of informal settlements. South Africa as a nation has seen many devastating fires in such conditions. However, the recent fires in Johannesburg have been unprecedented in their impact.
A group of about 200 people have been affected after this tragedy. The history of the building adds layers to its narrative. Once a symbol of the apartheid-era judiciary, it was transformed into a refuge for abused women. But like many buildings in Johannesburg, it was "hijacked".
Reactions to Disaster
South African leaders and celebrities expressed their grief and concern. President Cyril Ramaphosa called it a "tragedy". On the other hand, former mayor of Johannesburg, Herman Mashaba, pointed out that these hijacked buildings existed with government knowledge, indicating possible collusion.
Mashaba highlights a frustrating reality: these buildings are often operated under powerful entities, making it challenging for the original owners to reclaim them. These groups not only claim rent but also illegally connect to the city's utilities, further burdening the system.
The Johannesburg fires are a sobering reminder of the urgency needed to address the housing crisis in the city and, by extension, the country. As the city grieves its lost souls, there is hope that this tragedy will become a turning point in formulating and implementing effective housing policies that prioritize the safety and well-being of its residents.