MIA SWART: The things we lost in the fire
Government priorities have little to do with the poorest of the poor
On Saturday I made my way to Albert Street. I expected wreaths of flowers and other tributes to the victims of the fire. Instead, I found the area around the burnt-out building, bleaker than ever, cordoned off by police.
Ghostlike, the building casts long shadows across the street. A sign on a tree displayed numbers for fridge repairs. A woman in a nearby fast food shop sat on a plastic chair with her eyes closed, soaking in the sunshine. Just around the corner the words “Wings of Deliverance” were painted in large letters on the red wall of a funeral parlour. My Uber driver pointed to the heaps of rubbish everywhere. “People sleep in that rubbish,” he said.
Across the street from 80 Albert I saw a young woman enter a student residence and asked her what she saw on the night of the fire. She spoke of fear and helplessness. “There was always chaos around that building”, she said.
The multiple levels of chaos enveloping the Albert Street tragedy stand in stark violation of two of SA’s constitutional principles: a commitment to socioeconomic rights and to nondiscrimination. Constitutionalism itself is in utter disarray.
There can be no greater proof of the government abandoning socioeconomic rights than the state of the “dark” buildings in inner-city Johannesburg. Foundational to all other rights is the right to dignity. It is clear that when it comes to the poorest of the poor these rights are not protected.
The annual National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac) summit last week failed to arrive at a social compact to address joblessness. Social pacts are typically understood as agreements between governments, trade unions, employers’ organisations and civil society. But social pacts can be understood more widely.
SA’s 1996 constitution can be seen as the ultimate social pact or social contract; it arose from lengthy and inclusive negotiations. Violating the norms in the constitution means violating our central social pact.
Social pacts are not confined to the governed and the citizens, they include everyone present in a country. Would the government would have been as neglectful if most of the occupants of 80 Albert were not considered “illegal immigrants”?
SA’s deep antagonism towards African foreigners who seek better futures here finds clear expression in the fire and its aftermath. In July 2022, a group of UN special rapporteurs warned that SA was on the “precipice of explosive xenophobic violence”, noting that “the cost in human dignity and lives, particularly in the light of the past 30 years of xenophobic violence, remains widespread and deeply troubling”. The government continued to ignore these warnings.
In recent days, some have suggested that a commission of inquiry be established to investigate the causes and handling of the fire. But creating commissions of inquiry has long become a mostly cosmetic exercise, a useful tool of exoneration for the powerful. Whereas the 2017 Grenfell disaster did focus attention on poverty and housing inequality in the UK, the report published in its aftermath was widely criticised for neglecting crucial social dilemmas such as inequality.
Whereas a legal investigation of accountability for the Marshalltown disaster might be helpful, what is really needed in SA is a serious and structured national conversation on a new social pact, of which accountability should be a central feature.
Over the past days much has been said about the analogy between the Marikana massacre and Albert Street. As in the case of Marikana, the Albert Street fire represents the moment the state turned on the people, even if not by direct culpable action. In the case of Albert Street the state turned on the people through fatal neglect. The governing party’s careless responses in the aftermath of the disaster represents a further way in which the government has turned against the people.
The Albert Street fire broke out shortly after the hosting of the glittering Brics summit, again showing that the priorities of the government have little to do with the poorest of the poor. Albert Street illustrates the betrayal of the much-celebrated Grootboom judgment, which held the promise of fair and equal housing for all. For most of the destitute migrants who died in the fire, Johannesburg turned out not to be a city of gold, but a city of ashes. Instead of acquiring wings of deliverance they remained trapped in a dark hole of abandonment and despair.
When the interim constitution was agreed on 30 years ago, SA committed to a new bond of trust between the state and the governed. Sadly, trust, compassion and dignity were things we lost in the fire.
• Swart is a visiting professor at Wits Law School specialising in human rights, international relations and international law.
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