HomeTop StoriesHijacks and death traps in a crumbling South African city center

Hijacks and death traps in a crumbling South African city center

Johannesburg’s Central Business District is full of buildings on the brink of collapse. Windows are boarded up and walls are covered in graffiti.

The streets are filled with rubbish – food wrappers, empty beer bottles, cigarette butts – and a foul smell of spoiled food combined with urine fills the air.

It is overcrowded, dangerous and there are few facilities for working.

And it is now the setting for one of South Africa’s worst construction disasters, when 76 people died and dozens more were injured in a fire that swept through 80 Albert Street on Thursday.

The dilapidated complex was one of dozens that have been ‘hijacked’ – taken over by criminals and property gangs who then illegally rent the space to people who can’t afford anything else. There are often no reliable facilities and no sanitary facilities.

Molly, a 21-year-old South African who lives just down the street from 80 Albert Street in another “hijacked” building, says it’s like living in a prison.

“I will not have water to shower for a long time,” she told the BBC. And we live in the dark. All together in one room.’

She was afraid to use her full name for fear that the authorities would arrest her for living illegally.

Molly’s building is one of 57 hijacked in the downtown area, housing up to 2,000 people in one complex.

And in the aftermath of the latest deadly fire, people are wondering how so many are allowed to do that.

The rights of squatters

The South African Prevention of Illegal Eviction Act (PIE Act) is a starting point. It states that no one may be removed from their home without a court order.

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And once someone has settled into a building and can prove they have nowhere else to go, they cannot be evicted.

This makes clearing hijacked buildings incredibly difficult.

Angela Rivers, managing director of the Johannesburg Property Owners and Managers Association, says the anti-eviction bill is at the root of the problem.

“You can’t evict anyone unless they have alternative housing, which must be arranged by a lawyer [the prosecution],” she says.

“And that’s where the mess comes in. Because the counselor is unable to provide any accommodation because their own accommodation has been hijacked.”

The 80 Albert Street complex was owned by the City of Johannesburg, which means that the City would have been responsible for finding alternative accommodation for the evicted.

The building opened in 1954 as the Central Pass Office, which controlled the movements of black people in the city during apartheid.

South Africans used to go there to pick up a passbook, or a “dompas”, that determined where they could travel.

The building later became home to the Usindiso Women’s Shelter, before being abandoned and taken over by criminal gangs.

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The population of Central Johannesburg has exploded since the end of apartheid

Johannesburg has been experiencing a growing housing shortage since the end of white minority rule in 1994. Many black and mixed-race residents who lived in townships outside the city moved to the center to be closer to work.

Authorities say they are unable to cover the cost of new affordable housing needed, and their hands are tied by eviction laws.

Critics, such as Ms. Rivers, say the city simply refuses to address the problem.

“The PIE law has been around for 25 years. It’s been bothering us for 20 years. So you can’t wake up 20 years later and say, ‘Well, we’re bound by this law’. They know about it. It’s not over them jumped.”

She says officials could start inspections of public buildings and even use the few powers and statutes they have to improve the lives of the people who live in these buildings.

Kenny Kunene, a member of the opposition’s Patriotic Alliance who spent a weekend as acting mayor of Johannesburg in May, says the anti-eviction bill “protects criminals”.

‘Every time the government takes action, NGOs rush to court to prevent the government from expelling people from their country.

“So at the root of the proliferation of illegal building hijackings by illegal immigrants and South African criminals is the property law that protects them.”

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He also wants mass deportation of immigrants living in the buildings. He sees the hijackers and their ‘renters’ as the same problem.

Rights groups say Kunene’s views are another example of rising xenophobia in the country, which is home to an estimated 2.9 million migrants.

As the most industrialized economy in the region, it is an attractive destination for people seeking better job opportunities, even from Nigeria and Somalia.

Fire at 80 Albert Street, Johannesburg

76 people died in the devastating fire at 80 Albert Street

Victims, not criminals

Ms Rivers agrees that there is a “problem” with illegal immigrants.

“But it’s not the illegal immigrants who neglected that building,” she adds. “Many of these tenants are desperate people willing to pay money to get a roof over their heads.”

“They are just as much victims in this as the property owner who has lost his building,” she says.

And since many are undocumented and work in informal jobs, it is unlikely they will come forward to ask for alternative housing that the government can provide for low-income earners.

President Cyril Ramaphosa visited the burnt remains of 80 Albert Street shortly after the fire, calling for a thorough investigation to ensure no future tragedies occur.

“It’s a wake-up call for us to address the inner-city housing situation,” he said.

However, he did not mention specific steps the government would take.

So as the investigation into the cause of the fire continues, so too will the blaming game as to why so many Johannesburg residents live in such unimaginable conditions.

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