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Deadly Johannesburg building fire brings attention to housing operations run by gangs

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A massive fire ripped through a downtown building in the South African city of Johannesburg overnight, killing nearly 80 people. The five-story apartment block was one of many disused buildings in the city that have been overtaken by gangs, who then rent out the space inside to people who are desperate for affordable housing. Poorly maintained and squalid, whole families often share cramped quarters. And security is so precarious that even police are scared to enter. Kate Bartlett reports from Johannesburg. And a warning - this story contains intense descriptions of the night of the fire.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Coughing).

KATE BARTLETT, BYLINE: The fire broke out in the early hours of the morning, and eyewitness video shared on social media showed flames lighting up the dark city sky, people screaming to get out.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRUCK ENGINE RUMBLING)

BARTLETT: By the time the sun rose, the building was a blackened, smoldering shell, and the street below was swarming with emergency services and forensic teams with body bags.

People have gathered outside the charred remains of the building in Johannesburg's CBD, curious to see what's going on. Neighbors from the surrounding buildings who told me they heard screaming during the night - people screaming, help, help. One woman described how she saw people jumping from the windows of the third floor.

Mthabiseng Maimane, 34, was living in a nearby building and was woken by screaming.

MTHABISENG MAIMANE: I heard the kid crying, help us. Help us. It's burning. It's burning. People were trying to leave from upstairs to go down because the fire was too much. It was too much.

BARTLETT: She recounted how she saw a baby wrapped in a blanket being thrown to safety from the burning building. The building is one of dozens in the inner city that have been abandoned since business moved out of Johannesburg's CBD to its safer, leafy suburbs. They're called hijacked buildings because they've been taken over by squatters, many migrants from other African countries, who pay slum landlords rent to live in cramped, unsanitary conditions.

PRUDENCE NDLOVU: I don't have anything. Like, everything I lose today.

BARTLETT: Prudence Ndlovu, 29, a Zimbabwean mother of two, said she had lost absolutely everything in the blaze.

NDLOVU: I think the court is the one was moved from me there.

BARTLETT: She usually leaves her children there when she works nights. But that day she'd had a fight with her boyfriend and left her children at her friend's house. She says she came to Johannesburg, Africa's richest city, for a better life. But it's been hard. The exact cause of the fire is unknown, but there is speculation people could have been using candles or cooking on fires because there had been yet another power cut that night. President Cyril Ramaphosa visited the site, calling the tragedy a wake-up call. But Solly Msimanga from the main opposition Democratic Alliance said there's been a housing crisis in Johannesburg for years.

SOLLY MSIMANGA: You do have that in some of these buildings. They are drug lords. You do have slumlords. People are preying on the poorest of the poor, but government doesn't seem to care.

BARTLETT: As night falls in a cold Johannesburg, many families here don't know where they will be sleeping or how they can even start to rebuild their shattered lives. Johannesburg markets itself as a world-class African city, but today it fell far short of that promise. For NPR News, I'm Kate Bartlett in Johannesburg.

(SOUNDBITE OF IMAN OMARI SONG, "MOVE TOO FAST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kate Bartlett
[Copyright 2024 NPR]