NGOs respond to being blamed for Johannesburg fire

They say they make sure the law is upheld, while the City of Johannesburg has failed to provide alternative accommodation for evicted people

By Masego Mafata

31 August 2023

A fireman enters the building on the corner of Albert and Delvers streets in the centre of Johannesburg in which more than 70 people died in a fire. Photo: Ihsaan Haffejee

Following the fire on Thursday morning in a building on the corner of Albert and Delvers streets in the centre of Johannesburg, civil society organisations have been criticised for defending unlawful occupiers against illegal evictions from buildings in the inner city.

The building, believed to have been unlawfully occupied, is owned by the City of Johannesburg. Mayor Kabelo Gwamanda confirmed this in an interview with SABC on Thursday, saying the building was initially leased to “an NGO that dealt with displaced women”.

Speaking on the unlawful occupation of the building, Gwamanda said it was unfortunate that “the building ended up serving a different purpose”. The death toll from the fire, which is expected to rise, is 73 people.

The burnt building has put the spotlight on the housing crisis in Johannesburg’s inner city, and its unsafe, overcrowded buildings.

“It’s no secret that most people living in the inner city are poor and cannot afford rentals, so they are forced to move into the city’s abandoned buildings,” attorney Khuselwa Dyantyi told GroundUp.

Dyantyi is with the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa (SERI). Most of SERI’s cases involve people who have been unlawfully evicted, she said

The City’s Speaker, Colleen Makhubele, told Newzroom Afrika that certain NGOs make it difficult for the City to tackle the issue of “unsafe, hijacked buildings” because they prevent evictions.

Makhubele referenced a recent incident where Mayco Member of Transport Kenny Kunene, in his capacity as acting mayor, received backlash for his attempt to evict people from unlawfully occupied and unsafe buildings in the inner city.

Nothando Shongwe, an attorney from Lawyers for Human Rights’ (LHR) land and housing programme, disputed this. “What we do is enforce laws that were put in place by the government to protect human beings. We don’t make the laws, so they cannot put the blame on us,” Shongwe told GroundUp.

Dyantyi explained that Section 26 of the Constitution and the Prevention of Illegal Eviction from and Unlawful Occupation of Land Act (PIE Act) are the key laws protecting people against unlawful eviction.

Section 26 of South Africa’s Constitution says that everyone has the right to have access to adequate housing and it is the government’s responsibility to ensure that this right is realised. Section 26 also protects unlawful occupants against arbitrary evictions and demolition of property. It states that no evictions and demolitions may take place without a court order.

The Prevention of Illegal Eviction from and Unlawful Occupation of Land Act (PIE Act) gives effect to the Constitution. It describes the procedures that must be followed when evicting occupants. Included in these procedures is to find Temporary Emergency Accommodation (TEA), the mandate for which rests on the City. TEA is only provided if an eviction leads to homelessness.

Eviction orders are usually not granted until the alternative accommodation has been identified.

“This is where the disputes start because a lot of people know how long it takes to get a court order, so they will try to avoid that and evict people anyway. But that is against the law,” said Dyantyi.

Dyantyi said because of the City’s failure to provide alternative accommodation, SERI currently has 28 eviction matters pending in court.

The City currently has seven TEA sites with about 1,600 occupied beds between them, yet, according to its 2021/22 budget, there are more than 3,500 people awaiting TEA relocation. There is a dire shortage of alternative accommodation and this stalls eviction processes, Dyantyi said.

Both Dyantyi and Shongwe said it is important to ensure that people are not rendered homeless when they are evicted.

“Buildings that are not safe for occupation must be demolished, but the City has to provide alternative accommodation because without it, evicted occupants could just move to another abandoned and possibly unsafe building,” said Shongwe.

According to Shongwe, poor management of buildings, especially municipal-owned buildings, means there is often no one monitoring the safety and structural integrity of the building. “The building that burnt today is a City-owned building, if it was managed properly today’s tragedy could have been avoided,” she said.

Siyabonga Mahlangu, from the Inner City Federation, also said the failure to provide alternative accommodation was among the key contributors to people occupying buildings unlawfully in the inner city.

The Inner City Federation is a civil society group of inner city residents established in 2015 to advocate for service delivery and the rights of people living in the inner city.

Mahlangu accused the City of “dumping people” in municipal-owned buildings “supposedly serving as TEAs and leaving them there years without maintaining the building and providing services”.

“We made a call in 2017 to then-mayor Herman Mashaba to fix the places that we are occupying but nothing came of that. Even today, we are still waiting. We have sent letter upon letter to the City but they told us that our matters can only be addressed by the ward councillor.

“People move into these buildings, not to break the law but because they have nowhere else to go,” he said.