“Xenophobic” Makhubela should not be part of Joburg fire inquiry, say activists

Picket outside Commission of Inquiry into Albert Street fire

By Kimberly Mutandiro

5 December 2023

Activists picketed outside the hearing of the Commission of Inquiry into the Albert Street fire, calling for better housing. Photo: Kimberly Mutandiro

The Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa (SERI) has called for the recusal of advocate Thulani Makhubela from the Commission of Inquiry into the fire in Usindiso building in Albert Street, Johannesburg. The fire caused the death of 77 people and left 88 others injured.

Survivors who include 153 South Africans and 187 immigrants were placed in various shelters across the city. In November the survivors were reportedly evicted from the shelters under controversial circumstances which led to the arrest of 30 immigrants who are currently being kept at the Lindela Repatriation Centre.

Makhubela is one of three lawyers appointed to probe the fire.

The former residents said in their application: “The presence of Commissioner Makhubela in the Commission may undermine the credibility of its important work, findings and recommendations, owing to a reasonably held apprehension of bias against him. This is because he is closely associated with and an active supporter of the Operation Dudula and Put South Africans First groups. These are anti foreign groups.”

The application cited incidents where the Commissioner posted or reposted content related to immigrants, interacting with hashtags such as Put South Africans First and content published by people alleged to have used used xenophobic rhetoric.

“If the recusal of Commissioner Makhubela is unsuccessful, there is a reasonable perception that may arise as to the neutrality, impartiality and integrity of the Commission itself,” they argued.

Activists from Kopanang Africa Against Xenophobia, The Inner City Federation, Keep Left, Inner City Resource Center and General Industries Workers Union of South Africa (GIWUSA) picketed outside the Sci-Bono Discovery Centre where the Commission was sitting on Tuesday. They demanded justice for the fire survivors, whom they claimed had been left in limbo by the City of Johannesburg.

They said immigrant fire victims had been unfairly treated and accused of not having documents though they had lost their documents in the fire. They called on government officials to offer humanitarian and emergency relief to the victims.

“Instead of fixing the housing system the government and political elites have resorted to scapegoating foreign nationals for their failures to deliver adequate services to all those who live in the country,” said GIWUSA President Mawetlwe Sebei.

Monica Hasamo from Inner City Resource Centre accused the City of excluding immigrants who survived the fire from its relocation plan.

“The government should do a proper investigation into the cause of the fire. The City has turned the buildings into slums by cutting water and electricity from vulnerable families,” she said. She called on the City to fix buildings for poor and vulnerable people regardless of their nationality.

Thobile Zondo, deputy chairperson of Inner City Federation, who has been living in the inner city since 2000, said: “What we want is for the government to see the incident at Albert Street as a reflection of its failures. It’s not only foreign nationals who reside in the dark buildings; citizens are affected too. They should stop blaming foreigners and face the music.”