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Some disasters, as well as being tragedies in their own right, symbolise broader societal failings. The Grenfell Tower fire of 2017, in which 72 people died when substandard cladding in a London council block ignited in flames, exposed Britain’s scandalously lax building codes, especially when it came to poor people. The 2005 flooding of New Orleans after levees broke under the assault of Hurricane Katrina reflected wilful under-investment in infrastructure, poor disaster planning and inequality based on race and class.
Last month’s fire at an apartment block in Johannesburg’s central business district, in which 77 people died, is just such a disaster. The inferno laid bare a collapse in law and order and a shameful dereliction of state duty, particularly towards immigrants.
Fire broke out at around 1am on August 31. Residents lived packed together in partitioned rooms. Tin shacks sprouted around the building. Gates that could have served as escape routes were padlocked shut. Many of those who got out of the five-storey building shimmied down sheets. Others jumped from the burning building, often to their death.
The tragedy occurred at 80 Albert Street, no ordinary building. In the apartheid era it carried its own foul symbolism. Then it was the Pass Laws office, issuer of the hated “dompas”, an internal passport that segregated the population along racial lines. After the end of apartheid in 1994, it became a women’s refuge. Then the NGO that ran it collapsed and it became one of many “hijacked buildings”, taken over by gangland landlords who extract “rent” from buildings they do not own. Thus began a swift descent to death trap.
Gangs controlling the building subdivided rooms, even converting communal showers to living quarters. Many residents were immigrants with nowhere else to go. The city cut the building’s water and electricity, but service of a sort continued through illegal connections. With no showers, residents washed in plastic buckets. With only filthy toilets, they made do with public facilities. They bolted themselves in their rooms to avoid violence in corridors where gunfire was commonplace.
That 80 Albert Street became a privatised pocket of hell reflects a broader lawlessness. Carjackings came before building-jackings. Some of the most efficient businesses in South Africa are the “chop shops” that transform stolen cars into spare parts. When power goes off, a reliably frequent occurrence, gangs and petty thieves steal copper cable. Many of the rails of the train system have been hauled off and sold.
Selling off South Africa piece by piece at street level takes its cue from government. Under Jacob Zuma, it was official policy. Cyril Ramaphosa, who succeeded Zuma as president in 2018, promised to restore probity. But once government has been sold to the chop shop it is hard to reconstruct.
Immigration is another smouldering issue. Most of the residents of 80 Albert Street were foreigners, many from Malawi and Tanzania. As the ruling African National Congress likes to point out, as dysfunctional as South Africa is, it offers more economic opportunity than most of its neighbours. Zimbabwe’s economy collapsed years ago. In the Democratic Republic of Congo job prospects are slim.
More than a few South African politicians like to cast immigrants as undocumented criminals. In fact, most work ferociously hard, sending money home to parents or children. Take an Uber, talk to a truck driver, go to a restaurant: whether they are more motivated, better educated or free from the collective trauma of apartheid, many immigrants find work where South Africans cannot. South Africa’s youth unemployment is approaching 50 per cent.
Foreigners face the constant threat of violence or extortion, from both neighbours and police. During bouts of violence, foreigners bear the brunt. Though Ramaphosa has made a stand against xenophobia, many of his officials have not. Some have come close to praising vigilante attacks on “undocumented aliens” as a civic duty.
Beneath it all lies a dysfunctionality of politics. In 2021 municipal elections, the ANC fell below 50 per cent for the first time since the end of apartheid. A plethora of parties cobbled together volatile coalitions to run cities and municipalities. Johannesburg has had six mayors in the past three years.
Administrations come and go. But chaos and lawlessness remain. Johannesburg’s officials knew full well what was going on at 80 Albert Street and dozens of other buildings like it. But they lacked the will or capacity to do anything about it.
After next year’s presidential election, where the ANC is likely to fare badly, coalition government could become a feature of national government too. It is not likely to be pretty.
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