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

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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

  • Speaker for the City of Johannesburg Colleen Makhubele, as well as others, have blamed non-government organisations (NGOs) that fight evictions for the disastrous fire in the city centre on Thursday morning that left over 70 people dead.
  • But lawyers for the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa and Lawyers for Human Rights told GroundUp that they are ensuring that laws protecting vulnerable people are enforced properly.
  • The lawyers blamed the City for failing to find alternative accommodation for poor people facing eviction from slum buildings in the inner city.

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.

TOPICS:  Fire Housing

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Dear Editor

The argument of the NGOs that say they are only fighting for the city and government to follow the law when evicting people holds water but can be dangerous if followed narrowly without regard for other laws. Both the NGOs and the courts (through their judgments) seem to put the right to shelter above other important laws.

Nowhere in their declarations of innocence do they mention or problematise the illegal invasion of buildings or the unlawful occupation of unsafe and hazardous buildings. This approach, as the Johannesburg fire has demonstrated, is dangerous. It puts people in death traps in the name of upholding their "right to shelter".

Various other factors are also used to unlawfully occupy buildings – even ones that are not fit for human occupation – e.g. the housing shortage issue. But all this is not adequate, the laws must be viewed, interpreted and enforced in a holistic manner. Laws on the right to shelter, when applied at the expense of other laws such as public health and safety laws, can result in the kind of deadly consequences we've just witnessed.

So, the introspection that the NGOs and the courts need to make here is their uncritical activism that narrowly seeks to ensure "shelter" for people without paying too much attention to other equally vital rights and issues. They guarantee the right to shelter at the expense of encouraging the illegal occupation of buildings, compromising public health and safety, and the lives of the very people they seek to protect from homelessness.

While the government is to blame for the housing shortage and lack of adequate enforcement of public safety laws, the courts and NGOs also exacerbate the situation with their narrowly focused approaches.

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