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What should be done in the wake of the findings of the Khampepe commission of inquiry into the fire at the Usindiso building in central Johannesburg? The findings are as clear as they are damning, and have been extensively reported locally and internationally. The City of Johannesburg and its property company are yet to respond.

Let us recall what happened. In August 2023 a fire broke out in a city-owned property that had been slummed. Conditions in the building were well known to the city and amounted to a disaster waiting to happen. The disaster came in the form of a fire from which many residents were unable to escape as they were effectively locked inside. Seventy-seven people died in the fire — more fatalities than in the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960.

The results of the inquiry suggest two urgent streams of action. The city has to change the way it manages its properties, and we need a national effort to solve the problem of hijacked and other dangerous buildings. There are many more disasters waiting to happen.

The report of the commission makes it clear that the Usindiso fire was the result of neglect. The city was aware of the problems but did not resolve them. Caught between the legal requirement to close dangerous buildings and the legal pressure to rehouse the occupants, it simply allowed the problem to fester. In effect, the city allowed its property to be used by criminal gangs to collect rent, allowed illegal connections to proliferate, and allowed internal gates to be built that prevented residents from escaping.

This is not the only property the city has neglected to the point of destruction. In 2009 the city-owned Rissik Street Post Office — a landmark historic building — burnt down. This followed the withdrawal of security services by the Johannesburg Property Company after the security budget had run out. No-one was held accountable at the time, and the building has never been fully restored.

Indeed, the city continues to neglect many of its other inner city buildings, some of which are in a similar state to Usindiso. They city owns a portfolio of inner city buildings, including those that were originally part of the Better Buildings Programme. The city cancelled the programme in 2011 in favour of a project called the Inner City Property Scheme, which has never been able to deliver on its lofty (and utterly unrealistic) intentions.


Nearly all of the inner city properties that were part of that scheme are still owned by the city and many are hijacked. Which of these will burn down during the coming winter? From time to time the city has tried to sell these buildings, but has insisted that the buyer provides alternative accommodation for the occupants. This is clearly unworkable.

Political heads and executives should be held accountable for the neglect. But given the real difficulties facing the city we must go beyond finger-pointing and find a way forward for dangerous buildings. The city has stated its intention to solve the problem of dangerous buildings, whether these are city-owned or not. The issue is how.

There are various types of dangerous buildings and not all have the same needs. Some are sectional title buildings with collapsed body corporates and serious structural and maintenance problems. Some are privately owned, while many are owned by the state. Some are controlled by gangs and other criminals; others by their residents.

While there is no register of such buildings, I think one can estimate that there are probably fewer than 400 dangerous buildings in the country that require urgent attention. Surely this is not beyond us?

What needs to be done to rescue these buildings and their inhabitants? The process has been made far more difficult by NGOs that seem hell-bent on ensuring that occupants remain in such structures at all costs, even when they face immediate danger.

Clearing a hijacked building is a difficult task, but it is not impossible. What do the courts require to move occupants out of dangerous buildings? A recent review by VMW attorneys showed that there are three main requirements (which apply to South Africans and foreign nationals alike):

  • The city must engage with the residents, gather information about their numbers, needs and circumstances, and discuss scenarios with them.
  • The city must provide alternative accommodation, which may not be limited in time.
  • The alternative accommodation may be a basic shelter of 24m² per household, on a piece of reasonably located land, with access to water and sanitation. This is essentially a serviced site. A small rental may be asked in exchange for a lease so long as the rental is not more than what the household was paying in the dangerous building. This must entail a permanent right of access. If the alternative accommodation is in a high-rise building, it must be family accommodation — separating men and women is not acceptable and therefore dormitories or shelters are not workable.

Over the years, the city has moved many households from many dangerous buildings and placed them in city-owned facilities. These facilities were supposed to provide alternative, temporary shelter in buildings that could be used again and again as additional buildings were cleared.

The challenge is the insistence of the courts that such accommodation may not be limited in time. As a result the city cannot provide a temporary shelter for occupants of one building and then re-use it for the next building. It is clear that the courts have set the bar too high. Permanent, family-style, free housing is impossible to provide at scale.

Moving occupants to commercial rentals or even social housing also cannot work for such households because most do not earn enough to cover even a basic, sustainable rental. The courts have, however, accepted 24m² serviced sites, with basic shelters in a reasonable location. This is in line with the housing code. The provision of such sites — while challenging — is not beyond the capacity or resources of a large city such as Johannesburg.

Aside from the urgent need to prevent the next disaster, these inner city buildings represent a great opportunity to develop sustainable, affordable housing. They are well located in city centres and could become a catalyst for inner city redevelopment. This is what needs to be done:

  • The national government should mandate and support a project to assist city administrations to address these buildings, starting in Johannesburg.
  • Cities should create registers of dangerous buildings, their conditions and occupants.
  • The buildings that represent the most urgent source of danger should be prioritised.
  • Cities such as Johannesburg, which bear the brunt of the problem, should create a series of serviced sites that meet legal requirements, to which occupants can be moved.
  • Cleared buildings should be sold on the open market for redevelopment as affordable housing.

The problem of dangerous buildings has been discussed for decades but has never been treated as urgent. Usindiso could have been avoided. There is no excuse for further delay.

• Bethlehem is a former CEO of the Johannesburg Development Agency. 

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