At least 74 are dead, many of them homeless, as fire rips through a rundown building in South Africa

Authorities say at least 64 people died in Johannesburg when a nighttime fire ripped through a multi-story building that had been used by homeless people. An emergency services spokesperson said another 43 people were injured in the blaze that broke out at about 1 a.m. on Thursday.

Medics stand by the covered bodies of victims of a deadly blaze in downtown Johannesburg, Aug. 31, 2023. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

Medics stand by the covered bodies of victims of a deadly blaze in downtown Johannesburg, Aug. 31, 2023. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

Updated 12:16 PM CDT, August 31, 2023

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — A nighttime fire ripped through a rundown apartment building mainly occupied by homeless people and squatters in Johannesburg early Thursday, leaving at least 74 dead, officials said. Some people threw babies out of third-story windows to others waiting below in the desperate scramble to evacuate, witnesses said.

At least 12 of those killed were children, the youngest a 1-year-old, according to city and medical officials. They said at a news conference that an undetermined number of people were still missing and many bodies recovered were burned beyond recognition.

More than 50 people were injured, six of whom were in a serious condition in the hospital. Emergency services officials had earlier warned that the death toll could rise as they continued to search the scene more than 12 hours after the blaze broke out at around 1 a.m.

Dozens of bodies recovered by firefighters were laid out on a side road outside the apartment block, some in body bags, others covered in silver sheets or blankets after the body bags ran out. They were eventually taken away in pathology department vehicles.

“Over 20 years in the service, I’ve never come across something like this,” Johannesburg Emergency Services Management spokesperson Robert Mulaudzi said.

Authorities hadn’t established the cause of the fire but Mgcini Tshwaku, a local government official, said initial evidence suggested it started with a candle. Inhabitants used candles and fires for light and to keep warm in the winter cold, he said.

Firefighters were still making their way through the remnants of shacks and other informal structures that littered the inside of the derelict five-story building in the heart of Johannesburg’s central business district hours after the fire was extinguished. Smoke seeped out of the blackened building even though the fire was out, while twisted blankets and sheets hung like ropes out of shattered windows to show how people had used them to try and escape the flames.

Some of the survivors described how they jumped out of windows, but only after tossing their children to others below.

“Everything happened so fast and I only had time to throw the baby out,” said Adam Taiwo, who managed to save his 1-year-old son and himself. “I also followed him after they caught him downstairs.” Taiwo said he did not know where his wife, Joyce, was.

A witness who lives in a building across the road said he saw others also throw babies out of the burning building and that at least one man died when he jumped from the third floor and hit the concrete sidewalk “head first.”

Another witness who didn’t give his name told television news channel eNCA that he lived in a building next door and heard people screaming for help and shouting “We’re dying in here.”

As the fire raged, some occupants got trapped behind locked gates at the exits and there were no proper fire escape routes, local official Tshwaku said.

“People couldn’t get out,” he said, adding that some of the victims may have died after jumping out of the building.

More than 200 people were living in the building, witnesses said, including in the basement, which should have been used as a parking garage. Others estimated an even higher number of occupants.

Johannesburg mayor Kabelo Gwamanda said 141 families were affected by the tragedy but could not say exactly how many people were in the building when the fire started. Many of the people inside were foreign nationals, he said. That could make identifying victims and tracing the missing hard as many were likely in South Africa illegally, other officials said.

A woman who asked not to be identified said she lived in the building and escaped with her grown son and a 2-year-old child. She stood outside holding the toddler for hours and said she didn’t know what happened to two other children from her family.

“I just saw smoke everywhere and I just ran out with this baby only,” the woman said. “I don’t have any home, and I don’t know what to do anymore.”

In a statement, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said, “this is a great tragedy felt by families whose loved ones perished in this awful manner, and our hearts go out to every person affected by this event.”

A spokesperson for Ramaphosa said he had offered the assistance of the national disaster management agency if needed, and the president later visited the scene having canceled a Thursday evening television address on the BRICS economic summit held in Johannesburg last week.

Ramaphosa called the fire devastating and a “wake-up call” for South Africa’s economic hub to address its inner-city housing crisis.

“We are not here to blame anyone,” Ramaphosa said outside the burned building. “This is a difficult lesson for all of us.”

Johannesburg is rated as Africa’s richest city but its center is run down and often neglected. Abandoned and broken-down buildings are common, and people desperate for some form of accommodation use them for shelter. City authorities refer to the structures as “hijacked buildings” and they have been a problem for years, if not decades.

While city authorities were catching much of the blame for the deaths, they said it was often difficult to get courts to issue orders to evict the homeless from such buildings.

The building in question was reportedly owned by the city of Johannesburg and is considered a heritage site, but was not being managed by the city. It was once the site of South Africa’s notorious “pass” office, which controlled the movement of Black people under the racist system of apartheid, according to a blue historical plaque hanging at the entrance.

“Denied a place in the city, many were ordered to leave Johannesburg,” the plaque reads.

Decades later, the deadly fire made the building a modern emblem of the exclusion of poor people in Johannesburg.

Speaking at the scene, the Gauteng province’s police commissioner, Lt. Gen. Elias Mawela, said the police were aware of approximately 700 buildings in central Johannesburg that were derelict and abandoned. He urged city authorities to act, and to bar squatters from the burned building in the future.

“Shut it down. That building.” Mawela said.

Meanwhile, Mulaudzi, the emergency services spokesperson, said the fire took three hours to contain and firefighters then needed a long time to work through all five floors. He said there were “obstructions” everywhere that would have made it very difficult for residents to escape the deadly blaze and which hindered emergency crews trying to search the site.

The chance of anyone else being found alive hours after the fire broke out was “very slim,” Mulaudzi said.


Imray reported from Cape Town, South Africa. AP writer Cara Anna in Nairobi, Kenya contributed to this report.


South Africa fire: What are Johannesburg’s hijacked buildings?

By Lucy Fleming
Published 12 hours ago
BBC News

Many buildings in the centre of the South African city of Johannesburg, where a horrific fire has killed more than 70 people, are deemed unfit to live in.

Yet these old blocks, abandoned by their owners or the city authorities, are full of families often paying rent to criminal gangs who run them.

The buildings, which lack running water, toilets or a legal electricity connection, are then said to have been “hijacked”.

Scores of people often live in one room, often former offices. Fires are common – though nothing on the scale of the one that went up in flames overnight.

A firefighter at the scene of the five-storey building, in an area called Marshalltown, said many shack-like structures had been erected inside – making things even more combustible.

People tend to cook on paraffin stoves and during the cold winter months – June to September – fires are often lit in large metal drums with wood and other scavenged items thrown in for fuel.

Candles are often used and the numerous illegal electricity connections rigged up to provide power for those inside also pose a fire hazard. It is common to see satellite dishes hanging by windows.

One person who escaped the recent inferno told the BBC the fire had started during a power cut – which happen frequently throughout the country.

She said the cut in the electricity supply triggered a bunch of gunshot-like sounds followed by a massive explosion.

The fire broke out in the five-storey building overnight

The woman asked not to be named – this is because the occupants of these buildings are there illegally, and they tend to shun the authorities and media.

Two years ago, photographer Shiraaz Mohamed gained the trust of some residents of an infamous building in Johannesburg’s Hillbrow area – and published a piece on the BBC about their lives.

They told him about the unsanitary conditions – the smell of faeces permeating the corridors as occupants relieved themselves in the building’s empty spaces or sometimes on the pavement.

Those living there, who did their best to keep their own areas clean, were a mix of poor South Africans as well as migrants from across Africa – some of whom lack documents and are in the country illegally.

The city centre of Johannesburg is a dangerous place to be – with high levels of crime. It is still referred to as the Central Business District (CBD), though many businesses have long fled.

This happened around the time that white-minority rule ended in 1994. During apartheid, the government imposed strict racial segregation of cities – pushing black and mixed-raced communities into townships outside.

When apartheid was dismantled, those who had been pushed to the edges of cities could move in. Poor people looking for affordable housing moved close to where they worked to avoid high transport costs.

With some businesses and wealthier residents of the CBD moving to the more affluent northern suburbs, including the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, old commercial buildings in the city centre were turned into low-rent apartments.

Africa’s largest stock exchange moved to Sandton in northern Johannesburg in 2000 from the city centre

The newly liberated country also attracted migrants, some fortune-seekers, some refugees – many of whom settled in this cheap housing in the city centre.

South Africa faced and still faces a critical housing shortage – a legacy of apartheid and one of the governing African National Congress’s greatest challenges.

The country remains one of the most divided and unequal societies in the world.

In Johannesburg, the country’s largest city, 15,000 people were estimated to be homeless earlier this year, the provincial department told fact-checking website Africa Check.

Following the exodus of businesses, the CBD became a no-go area with a reputation for crime and violence, and some buildings were reportedly abandoned by owners as rates owed to the council exceeded their value.

Johannesburg city authorities began efforts to rejuvenate things more than a decade ago. They declared building unfit for human habitation and – often after court cases – rehoused some of the residents.

By law property owners must offer a building’s occupants alternative accommodation before evicting them, even if they are undocumented migrants.

Some parts of the CBD have been redeveloped – with private investment.

Those living in derelict hijacked buildings often light fires in drums to keep warm

Yet as derelict buildings proliferated – some owned by the council and tied up in legal wrangles – criminal syndicates spotted an opening to make money, further exploiting those desperate for accommodation.

The rent can be fairly high – but these kind of landlords overlook a bad credit history or the fact that the tenants have no official documents.

It is a tough life for those living in a hijacked building. Drugs and addiction proliferate – and outsiders are at risk when they venture in.

Yet for the occupants, when they open up about their lives, it is clear the abandoned buildings offer a roof over their heads and a chance to dream of a better future.

Leave a Comment