Fri. Apr 12th, 2024

A tragic fire that claimed 77 lives in the Usindiso Building in Marshalltown has brought attention to the pervasive issue of hijacked buildings in the City of Joburg.

The Usindiso Building, initially a council-owned facility leased to the Gauteng Department of Social Development, was repurposed as a shelter for abused women and children before being hijacked a decade ago. The building subsequently fell under the control of unidentified individuals who collected rent from occupants residing in partitioned rooms, resembling an informal settlement within a formal structure.

Commission of Inquiry:
Retired Constitutional Court Justice Sisi Khampepe is heading a Commission of Inquiry, supported by advocates Thulani Makhubela and Vuyelwa Mathilda Mabena, to investigate the deadly tragedy. The inquiry, initiated by Gauteng Premier Panyaza Lesufi, aims to determine the cause of the fire and address the prevalence of hijacked buildings in Johannesburg’s Central Business District.

Inquiry Phases:
The first phase focuses on investigating the cause of the fire and the widespread issue of hijacked buildings. The second phase aims to determine liability for the deaths and injuries, with recommendations for necessary steps.

Controversy Surrounding Inquiry:
The inquiry faces controversy as calls for Commissioner Makhubela’s recusal have succeeded due to allegations of impartiality, particularly anti-migrant sentiment expressed on his social media posts. The Social Economic Rights Institute (SERI) argued that retaining Makhubela would undermine the commission’s work.

SERI’s Response:
SERI responded to blame from officials, stating that the conditions in shelters need urgent improvement, emphasizing the city’s responsibility in addressing the inner-city housing crisis. SERI urged the City to proactively improve conditions in its buildings to prevent future tragedies.

City’s Response:
The City of Johannesburg, facing over 50 known hijacked buildings, grapples with the challenge of finding alternative accommodation for occupants in condemned buildings. The City’s legislated problem buildings by-law allows eviction but highlights the need for collaboration between the public and private sectors to address the issue.

Impact on Electricity Bills:
Hijacked buildings are also implicated in the significant portion of the over R10 billion unpaid electricity bills owed by Joburg residents to City Power. In September, residents from a hijacked building halted technicians attempting to disconnect illegally connected electricity.

The inquiry is set to resume in January, and stakeholders emphasize the urgency of collaborative efforts to tackle the complex challenges posed by hijacked buildings in Johannesburg.

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