Last Thursday, 31 August, we woke to the news that a building in downtown Johannesburg was on fire with many of its inhabitants still trapped inside.
As emergency services worked at the scene, we heard harrowing accounts of people being forced to jump out of windows, of those who lost all their meagre possessions, and of mothers losing contact with their children as they tried to escape the inferno. Seventy-six lives have been lost. Twelve of the deceased were children. Scores were badly injured.
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There are few words that can convey the immensity of this tragedy. Our hearts are heavy.
At such a time, we embrace our common humanity.
It does not matter what the nationalities of the inhabitants were. It does not matter if they were or were not documented. What matters is that, as a people of empathy and compassion, we rally around the survivors who have lost everything and who are struggling to come to terms with what has happened to them.
I commend the firefighters who responded so swiftly to put out the fire. I further commend the relief organisations, municipal officials, national departments, embassies, civil society groups and members of the public who have come to the aid of those who lost loved ones and are supporting those left destitute.
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In the aftermath of this tragedy, serious questions must be asked about how some 200 people were occupying a building that was not built for housing, was unsafe and had no basic services.
Serious questions must be asked about why by-laws are not being enforced across vast swathes of certain cities, resulting in them becoming run-down. These areas are attracting crime, further compounding the problem.
Serious questions must be asked about how the laws and regulations designed to protect tenants from arbitrary eviction have been used by unscrupulous and criminal ‘slumlords’ to prey on society’s most vulnerable.
Serious questions must be asked about the responsibility of owners and landlords of inner-city buildings in Johannesburg and major cities around the country that have either been abandoned or fallen into ruin. These owners include private property developers and the state itself.
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South Africa has progressive laws and policies with respect to housing, including the Emergency Housing Programme. There are landmark court judgments on the rights of tenants and the responsibilities of the state to people facing eviction, regardless of their immigration status. We need to examine how our policies are being implemented and how they can be improved.
The victims of the Marshalltown fire weren’t only the poorest of the poor. Many were reportedly undocumented migrants who are vulnerable to exploitation.
Dealing decisively with illegal immigration is a priority because regularising the immigration status of all those who have the legal right to be in our country helps to protect them from exploitation.
There are complaints about employers who flout the law and hire illegal immigrants so they can pay them less. There are also corrupt individuals in the state working with criminal syndicates to get fraudulent documents for those desperate to remain in the country.
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This tragedy has brought to the fore the need to resolve the challenge of housing in our cities. Even though millions of houses have been built since the advent of democracy, providing decent homes for over 14 million people, the demand for housing continues to grow. The movement of large numbers of people into our major centres is fuelling the growth of informal settlements and placing further strain on infrastructure and services.
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As a starting point, municipal authorities across the country dealing with inner-city decay need to redouble their efforts to revitalise these areas, use regulatory and legislative provisions to safeguard human life, and hold landlords whose premises have become headquarters of criminal activity accountable.
We have heard about progress in some areas. It was reported that last year, for example, the City of Johannesburg managed to return some 47 ‘hijacked’ buildings to their lawful owners. Once rehabilitated, these buildings could provide safe and decent low-cost housing for the poor.
There needs to be greater cooperation between municipal officials and inner-city property owners and developers.
We need clean, safe, liveable and vibrant inner cities that attract people to live, work or study. We want our inner cities to attract businesses and investment. We cannot allow certain parts of our cities to suffer chronic neglect and become ‘no-go areas’ because of rampant criminal activity.
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As such, let us come together as government and the private sector, as individuals, as communities and as civil society organisations.
We have to obey the law and observe regulations that exist for our safety and for the safety of others. We need to work with officials seeking to strike a balance between the rights of tenants and regard for their safety and well-being. Above all, we need to report acts of criminality and not be party to them.
Like all of us, the people living in that building and in similar conditions elsewhere want a decent quality of life. They want a safe place to live close to work opportunities and services.
We have a shared responsibility, as government, business and civil society, to do everything we can to provide support and protection. Let us work with, and not against, each other.
Let this tragedy compel us to work much harder to give effect to the human dignity that is the right of us all.