The burned building in Johannesburg, South Africa, where 74 died in the fire.


The South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU) mourns the deaths of about 73 people, with the death count still rising, in a fire blaze that razed a residential building in the Johannesburg CBD. We extend our heartfelt condolences to the families that have lost their loved ones.

Government officials suspect the use of candles for lighting as the likely cause of the fire. But because this remains a suspicion, and there could still be different possible causes of this fire including even arson, we support the “inquest docket” that the Police said they will open, in order to conduct further investigations.

Blame poor governance

The building that burned is reportedly a hijacked building. The neighbouring residents add that it is a den for drug dealing too. Despite these testimonies from neighbours that it is playground for drugs, the building was a resident to families and children. The officials at the scene of the incident also attest that a lot of victims are children.

There are at least two types of occupations that may be considered illegal, plaguing South African cities. Firstly, it is occupations by desperate people without housing and who cannot afford the expensive rate in the city. We do not consider these occupations as hijackings. Secondly, occupations that are correctly called hijackings, where criminal syndicates hijack buildings for the criminal operations and to rent to desperate tenants seeking affordable accommodation. The interchangeable use of illegal occupation and hijacking is misleading and hides the crisis of housing that underlies the occupation of abandoned buildings.

According to the City of Johannesburg officials, people who hijack buildings are usually criminals who are connected to syndicates. Hence drug dealing is one of the dominant activities in these buildings.

Some Xenophobes want to blame immigrants. Indeed, some of the hijackers and occupiers are undocumented immigrants. But we reject the narrative that illegal occupation of buildings is done by immigrants only. Such a xenophobic sentiment is already permeating the discourse on social media in the wake of this incident. The fire that blazed the building cannot be blamed on immigrants. Besides, the officials of the City have in the past said that local criminals and the involvement of some officials in government are also part of the syndicates that hijack buildings.

It is important to differentiate between criminals that hijack buildings and their tenants. Tenants are predominantly ordinary working-class people, both locals and immigrants. The reason why hijacked buildings have tenants and occupants that are ordinary working people who have nothing to do with those syndicates, is indicative of the housing crisis that our people are faced with in the urban centres. The level of desperation for shelter and housing compels the ordinary working-class people in these Urban centres to live in these buildings even when it compromises their safety and health, under conditions that are not dignified nor conducive for raising of children.

In rare instance, we see “illegal occupation” of buildings led by homeless people in the cities. For us, these occupations are different from criminal seizures of buildings for criminal activities and commercial gains. Hence, we reject attempts to categorise civilian occupation of buildings for residential purposes (such as the occupation of “derelict hospital and an abandoned nursing home” in Cape Town in 2017) as hijacking. This is because homeless people seeking accommodation in abandoned buildings is different from criminal syndicates seizing buildings for commercial gains and criminal operations.

Illegal occupations, in all their manifestations, are both caused by and a consequence of poor governance and lack of housing. On the one hand, the lack of housing causes Urban dwellers in the CBDs to “illegally” occupy buildings and drive desperate working-class people into tenancy of buildings hijacked by criminal syndicates. On the other hand, the corrupt government officials and corrupted law enforcement officers perpetuate the hijacking of buildings by accepting bribes from criminals.

Do not blame human rights NGOs, blame government

Some of the City of Johannesburg councillors are blaming the human rights-based NGOs which have litigated on behalf of tenants to stop evictions in some of the buildings which are said to be illegally occupied. This lazy excuse of blaming the NGOs is a refusal to accept that they are sleeping on duty. It is a failure to recognise the explicit and implicit role they, as government, have played in the proliferation of illegal occupations of buildings.

Human Rights based NGOs have defended tenants on the basis of legal prescripts that so necessarily protects citizens from being thrown into the streets through evictions. The progressive section of the South African law requires whoever carries evictions of people from a residential place to find an alternative accommodation for them. Human rights NGOs like Socio-Economic Rights Institute (SERI), which the City of Johannesburg wants to scapegoat for their failures, has defended tenants in some of these buildings on this basis. Government officials must not rub their failures in the face of this tragedy on the NGOs. They must own up their utter failure to provide housing and shelter to our people as guaranteed in the constitution of this country.

To stop illegal occupations of abandoned buildings by desperate poor working-class people, government should build free social housing for poor people, and low-cost social housing for those who can afford in the City.

To stop hijacking of buildings by criminals and drug dealing, government must cleanse those corrupt law enforcement officials who are bribed to turn a blind eye and allow drug dealers to go unpunished.

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