What You Need to Know:
A fire which spread through a five storey building in central Johannesburg in August last year and claimed 77 lives, is now thought to have been started in an attempt to cover up a murder.
According to Reuters, the man is to appear in court and face 120 counts of attempted murder alongside 77 counts of murder.
The Usindiso building, owned by the city of Johannesburg, had been under the control of suspected drug dealers, who allowed civilians to live there for a fee. Colloquially known as ‘hijacking’, or the taking over of a building by criminal groups in order to charge tenants extortionate rent, is a large problem in South Africa, but the issue is particularly rife in inner city Johannesburg.
Speaking to an inquiry into the fire earlier this week, the 29-year old suspect claimed he was high on crystal meth when he had strangled a man to death before dousing the body in petrol and setting it alight.
The suspect said he then fled the building.
According to police reports, on the night of the fire many of the building’s exits and fire escapes had been locked, resulting in a much higher death toll.
According to City of Johannesburg spokesperson Nthatisi Modingoane, the city is now investigating around 188 cases of hijacked buildings in the area.
An opinion piece written in September 2023 for the Daily Maverick by former Mayor of Johannesburg, Herman Mashaba, claimed the fire represented the failures of the state.
Mashaba stated, “Last week, South Africans were reminded of what happens when the state fails to do its basic duty. In what would forever be an indictment on post-apartheid South Africa — similar to the death of 34 mine workers at Marikana and the Lily Mine tragedy — 77 people died in a blaze at a state-owned building in Marshalltown, Johannesburg, that I maintain could’ve been avoided.
Their untimely death is not a freak accident as the ruling party would like us to believe, but is emblematic of the systemic breakdown in the rule of South Africa. How is it possible that 29 years into South Africa, we have allowed state-owned buildings to be hijacked by mafia-like landlords; where the most vulnerable of our society are extorted to pay rent despite the building being illegally occupied? The inhumane circumstances of these buildings simply do not live up to the South African ideals as defined in the Constitution..
Often, these buildings have no running water, or access to electricity and are subdivided with flammable placards to allow more and more people to be crammed inside. They are dark with open fires and candles being used to keep people warm, sewage runs freely with the stink thick in the air while drugs are allowed to be sold freely.”
So, What Now?:
The hijacking of buildings however, is not solely a drug dealers enterprise. The same month Mashaba’s opinion piece was written, a Johannesburg City Councillor was arrested for his role in Hijacking a property intended for use by the Johannesburg Metro Police.
Crime in Johannesburg CBD is rampant, although Xolani Fihla, spokesperson for Johannesburg Metropolitan Police Department (JMPD), claimed in 2022, that despite the crime, no area is a ‘no-go zone’ for JMPD officers.