A fire in a rundown building in Johannesburg, South Africa, has left at least 76 dead and injured at least 50 others. The dead include at least 12 children. People were seen jumping to their deaths during the 31 August 2023 fire, with exits reportedly blocked by locked security gates.
Officials initially claimed that the 5-story building in the central business district of South Africa’s capital had been occupied by squatters. Abandoned and broken-down buildings are reported to be common in the area, and this particular building had been featured in a recent New York Times article describing the deteriorating conditions in this city with a population of 6 million. Indicative of the deterioration, the Times article reported that in May the city elected its 6th different mayor in the span of 22 months.
During apartheid the building had been used as a checkpoint for black workers, issuing passes to restrict movements, and was still owned by the city. However, a breakdown in governmental regulation has allowed criminal gangs to seize control of empty buildings, demanding rents from those desperate for shelter. One surviving resident reported to National Public Radio (NPR) that she had come from a poorer African country to seek a better life and, along with her two children and boyfriend, lived in a makeshift shack constructed within the building for which she was paying the “cartel” about US$ 60 per month.
Officials believe that as many as 200 people had been living in the building before the fire, with makeshift cooking and heating arrangements. Since the fire occurred during a power failure, it is suspected that candles may have been the cause.
The fire was somewhat reminiscent of the 2 December 2016 “Ghost Ship” fire that took place in the United States in Oakland, California, and resulted in 36 deaths. Almost all of the victims were individuals attending a party on a second floor built within what had been a 9880 sq ft (918 m2) former warehouse constructed of cement block. Although located in an industrial zone and rented as a commercial property, the building had been illegally converted into a maze of loft spaces housing 25 artists along with family member of the master tenant. The building was packed with combustibles, including a staircase constructed of wood pallets. The exact cause of the fire was never determined, although it was suspected to be electrical in origin. A web of extension cords reportedly provided power to the building, fed from an auto body shop next door through a hole in the wall. Building and fire codes had not been properly enforced, and in 2020 the City of Oakland settled lawsuits for US$33 million, including US$ 9 million to one person who survived but with lifelong injuries. Pacific Gas & Electric and the Ng family that owned the building also settled for undisclosed sums. The master tenant ultimately pled guilty to 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter.