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Joburg Fire Was a Long Time Coming

State of the Union: Hijacked buildings are a menace to public health and safety.
(By Fernando Astasio Avila/Shutterstock)

It was bound to happen. At 1:30 a.m. Thursday morning, a five-story building in downtown Johannesburg caught fire and blazed for over six hours. At least seventy-three people are dead, including twelve children. Authorities say the building had been occupied by illegal squatters.

It is not yet known what started the fire. With these squatter dens, it could be anything. They hook up illegally to the electrical grid, so there are dangling wires all over the place. People cook indoors with gas stoves or light fires to keep warm.


There are more than 600 illegally occupied buildings in Johannesburg, many of them “hijacked buildings” where armed gangs have taken them over from their rightful owners and rent out the space to squatters. These buildings are notoriously crime-ridden and derelict, with no running water, no toilets, and no regular garbage collection.

In this case, the building’s owner on paper was a nonprofit that operated a women’s shelter, but they moved out sometime in 2019. In October 2019, authorities arrested more than a hundred foreign nationals for illegally collecting rent from squatters at the site. Clearly those arrests did not solve the problem.

President Cyril Ramaphosa blamed the fire on these building hijackers. “It is these types of buildings that are taken over by criminals, who then levy rent on vulnerable people and families who need and want accommodation in the inner city,” he said during a visit to the site on Thursday.

Owners who want to restore law and order to their property are caught between two pincers, lawless and legal. On the lawless side, when they try to enter their buildings, men with guns will stop them from getting as far as the lobby.

The other blade of the pincer is South African property law, which is very favorable to tenants. South Africa’s constitution guarantees a right to housing, and various court precedents have established requirements that must be met before a property owner can proceed with an eviction, including having alternative housing in place for the displaced resident. Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon’s excellent book The Blinded City: Ten Years in Inner City Johannesburg describes a hijacked building where eviction was delayed by the presence of thirty blind people in the building, who had additional legal protections due to their disability.

Another factor that made Thursday’s fire so deadly was the fact that the city of Johannesburg has only sixteen functioning fire engines for a city of 5.5 million people, according to a city spokeswoman. Private fire companies, such as Fire Ops, were needed to put out the blaze.

Between the failure of basic services and the deadly conditions created by criminal rackets, this story brings together many elements of South Africa’s decline, which is several decades further along than ours. For now.