Johannesburg fire ‘wake-up call’, President Ramaphosa says

A deadly fire in Johannesburg’s inner city was “a wake-up call” for South Africa, says President Cyril Ramaphosa.

Seventy-four people were killed – including 12 children – after a blaze in a five-storey building, which was being occupied by homeless people.

More than 50 others were injured.

Earlier, the city of Johannesburg confirmed it owned the building, but said cartels had taken it over. Officials say the cause of the deadly fire is unclear.

In a news conference at the site of the fire, Mr Ramaphosa said the incident needed to be investigated and lessons learnt to prevent future tragedies.

“It’s a wake-up call for us to begin to address the situation of housing in the inner city,” the South African leader said.

The building used to be a home for abused women and children, but once the lease expired, it was “hijacked”, President Ramaphosa explained to reporters.

Many properties around the area where the blaze happened have been 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.

Some of those who use the buildings include undocumented migrants, mostly from other African countries.

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

“We need to get on top of this and find effective ways of dealing with problems of accommodation, of housing, and services in the inner city,” Mr Ramaphosa added.

He also commended emergency services, who arrived at the scene 10 minutes after the fire was reported.

Ten of the recovered bodies were unidentifiable, a representative of the health department said.

Speaking at the same news conference, Johannesburg city manager Floyd Brink said 200 families were affected by the fire and “all efforts” were taken to provide accommodation.

Johannesburg mayor Kabelo Gwamanda said displaced survivors would have temporary accommodation for three days.

“After 72 hours, the human settlements department will advise on where they will be taken,” Mr Gwamanda said in a statement.

A spokesman for the emergency services, Robert Mulaudzi, told the BBC that firefighters had been able to bring out some of the occupants.

He said the fire had gutted the building and the search for other victims was continuing.

Speaking separately to Newzroom Afrika, Mr Mulaudzi said that the youngest of the seven children who died was 18 months old.

Disaster management officials were in the area to provide relief for surviving residents.

A video posted by Mr Mulaudzi to the platform X, formerly known as Twitter, showed fire trucks and ambulances outside the building with burnt-out windows.

Photos from the scene showed covered bodies lined up near the burned building.

One woman told journalists she was outside the building searching for her 24-year-old daughter.

“As soon as I heard the building was burning down, I knew I had to run here to come and look for her,” she said.

“Now that I’m here, I’m kept in suspense because I really don’t know what is happening. I don’t get any direction – so I’m actually very anxious, I don’t know if my daughter is alive.”

The building is located in what was formerly a business district in South Africa’s economic hub. It was being used as an informal settlement, Mr Mulaudzi said.

A map locates the scene of the fire in Johannesburg, South Africa

A map locates the scene of the fire in Johannesburg, South Africa

Mr Mulaudzi told the BBC the building had been abandoned previously, but homeless people had moved in looking for shelter during the current cold winter months.

He added that since it was not a formal accommodation with a lease, the building was not properly looked after, and makeshift structures and debris had made it hard to search for and rescue people.

Lebogang Maile, the politician responsible for housing in the province, said there was a chronic problem with housing in the area, with 1.2 million people looking for somewhere to live.

Asked whether his administration would take responsibility for the tragedy, Mr Gwamanda, said the government was dealing with the issue of cartels hijacking buildings, which was taking place across the city.

In a visit to the scene, Mr Gwamanda said Johannesburg officials would relocate people living in similar “hijacked” buildings in the city, and turn those buildings into social housing. “We are not going there with brute force,” he told reporters, “we are trying to apply a sensitive strategy.”

Firefighter Mr Mulaudzi told the BBC that during his 23 years of service, he had “never come across something like this”. The emergency services spokesman said Johannesburg “must do something about it as a city, working together, to make sure we prevent incidents like this one”.

In the wake of the fire, many South Africans on social media condemned the online xenophobic attacks that some have made against the victims and survivors of the fire.

Additional reporting by Malu Cursino in London.

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