Building fire tragedy 'a very difficult lesson' that must not be repeated: President Ramaphosa

Thursday, August 31, 2023

The building fire which claimed the lives of at least 74 people in Johannesburg should serve as a “wake up call” for the urgent need to resolve housing challenges in the inner city, according to President Cyril Ramaphosa.

He was addressing the media at the site of the building – called the Usindiso Building – on Thursday evening.

“We are very saddened as government about the passing of so many people here in Johannesburg. This is unprecedented. Johannesburg has never had an incident like this where so many people die as a result of a fire in the centre of the city. This is tragic, this is very sad and I want to pass my condolences and that of the government to the families of those who have passed on and those who are still in hospital.

“We’ve got to [get] to the bottom of what caused this fire. It’s a wake-up call for us to begin to address the situation of housing in the inner city that a building like this…once the lease had expired, it was then hijacked and 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,” he said.

Swift response

President Ramaphosa said the emergency and social response in the aftermath of the report of the fire in the early hours of Thursday morning was in line with expectations.

He said this demonstrates that the “determination to care for the people of South Africa is…a top priority”.

“I’m told that as soon as the fire was reported at 1:19 in the morning, in ten minutes the firefighters were here. That is a real good and quick response which we must recognise on the part of the province, the city, that they have been ready for calamities and events like this. A response of 10 minutes when such a devastating fire is something that needs to be recognised.

“The sad part is that much as they fought the fire, they were not able to save everyone and some people were saved…but it’s said that we have lost up to 74 people and some of them children who must have died very tragically and this is the type of death that we never wish on anyone.

“The ministers, the MECs and the province and the city are working now full out to make sure that those who need assistance from accommodation to trauma counselling to hospitalisation are being looked after,” he said.

Rooting out criminality

The President addressed the fact that the Usindiso Building belongs to the City of Johannesburg but was hijacked by “criminal elements” who prey on those in desperate need for accommodation.

“The lesson for us is that we’ve got to address this problem and root out those criminal elements because it is these types of buildings that are taken over by criminals who then levy rent on vulnerable people and families who need and want accommodation in the inner city.

“There needs to be law and order in the inner city. The initiatives that we are embarking on through our security forces…one of those, working with the city and with the province, we are going to ensure that we root out all criminal elements and restore the livelihoods of people who live in the city,” he said.

President Ramaphosa emphasised that when dealing with buildings such as the Usindiso Building, government must carefully balance the constitutionally mandated right to housing with dealing with criminality.

“We are not standing here to shift blame and to pass blame on anyone. And if anything, we are all responsible for the calamity that has occurred and we need to take it in [our] stride and say, yes this should never have happened, yes we should be learning a lesson and sometimes these are very difficult lessons that have been sparked off by loss of life.

“But nonetheless, this is a lesson and yes, I repeat, a wake-up call because we don’t want to see a repeat of what has happened here. So therefore, we need to look at…the regulations, the laws and everything.

“We have achieved a great deal. Our constitutional construct has given all of us a right that we’ve always yearned for. But we’ve always found that we go through a number of processes as we try to do the right thing. At the same time, there’s either too many delays, too many detours that then make it difficult for us to do the right thing at the right time,” he said. –