Inquiry Into Johannesburg Fire Blames City Officials for Deadly Conditions

An inquiry into a deadly fire in Johannesburg last August that killed 76 people and exposed a housing crisis in South Africa’s largest city placed the blame on officials who ignored “ringing alarm bells” for years.

The eight-month inquiry, led by a retired constitutional court justice, released its findings in a report on Sunday. The report said that years of inaction by city agencies had allowed the building to fall into lethal disrepair, and singled out a high-ranking official for blame.

“The consequences of the fire would have been mitigated had the city complied with its legal obligations as owner and municipality,” the report said.

In the early hours of Aug. 31, a fire ripped through a derelict building in downtown Johannesburg. Once a women’s shelter, it had been all but abandoned by city agencies although it was owned by the government and managed by the Johannesburg Property Company, a government agency. Instead, about 600 people desperate for affordable accommodation were squatting in the five-story building, creating a tinderbox that would lead to one of the deadliest residential fires in South Africa’s recent history.

While a resident in the building later confessed to setting the fire, the report found that city officials knew about the “distressing conditions” and had allowed the building to become a firetrap. Once known as the Usindiso women’s shelter, the building was taken over by criminal organizations who collected rent.

The structure had no municipal electricity or running water. Instead, residents used the building’s fire hoses and fire extinguishers to collect and store water, and created illegal electricity connections. They erected partitions of wood, cardboard and cloth, built shacks within rooms and cooked on paraffin stoves. Heaps of trash piled up around the building. The structure was known as a haven for crime in the area, and yet law enforcement was virtually nonexistent, the report found.

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