Why Joburg is burning
The tragic Bank of Lisbon blaze shows up serious safety gaps and fire-engine shortages as well as deep political fault lines
On Wednesday last week a perfect storm was brewing as firefighters from the Johannesburg Emergency Services went up to the 23rd floor of the Bank of Lisbon to battle a blaze that had erupted in the downtown building.
It was a day on which there were three other fires being fought in Johannesburg, according to the city’s public safety MMC, Michael Sun.
While the inferno blazed the firefighters went up to do what they were trained for, ready with a hose reel to battle the fire that had started on a floor where documents were stored and was full of paper that fuelled the flames.
But when the fire hose was opened, no water came out.
Three firefighters died in the unfolding drama: Simphiwe Moropane, 28; Khathutshelo Muedi, 37; and Mduduzi Ndlovu, 40.
One of the firefighters fell to his death from the 23rd floor. The others died after being trapped inside the building. The fire raged on for more than 48 hours.
For Sun, everything that could go wrong did go wrong that day.
It emerged that the Bank of Lisbon building had become a death trap. It did not comply with the Occupational Health & Safety Act: it was only 21% compliant, when 85% is required. The dangers had been flagged years before.
The Gauteng government had also known that the building did not meet safety standards.
Ironically, the occupants of this terminally sick structure included the provincial government’s health department. It also housed the departments of human settlements and co-operative governance & traditional affairs (Cogta).
The department of infrastructure development was well on its way to finding new offices for the employees in the departments of Cogta and human settlements when the fire broke out.
The building was, however, not the only noncompliant one occupied by government employees. Eight others were also identified.
On Monday the provincial government said it would evacuate tenants from the buildings that did not meet the minimum occupational health and safety standards and make them safe.
The Bank of Lisbon building and the other eight are not the only places of danger where government employees are expected to work. Last year in March, a roof collapsed at the Charlotte Maxeke Hospital in Johannesburg.
Five people were hurt in that in that incident.
The DA, which tabled a motion in the provincial legislature last week demanding the resignation of infrastructure development MEC Jacob Mamabolo and health MEC Gwen Ramokgopa, warned that the roof collapse could have caused many fatalities and "should have served as a wake-up call about poor maintenance of government buildings".
Besides the infrastructure deficiencies, the Bank of Lisbon building tragedy also highlighted a lack of capacity at the Johannesburg Emergency Services.
Sun admitted that there are only between 14 and 16 working fire engines at the city’s 30 fire stations. He says there should be at least one fire engine for every station, and that the city will put out tenders for 27 new fire engines that will, it is hoped, be concluded in the near future.
Michael Holenstein, portfolio manager for local government for the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse, says he believes what happened at the Bank of Lisbon building was a systemic issue, and that it is broader than just buildings. He also refers to failing waste-water treatment plants. Not enough is being budgeted for repairs in municipalities in general, he says.
The drama has underlined huge fault lines in provincial government. What stood out, besides a disregard for the safety of government workers, was the political mudslinging that took place even while the building was burning.
Will party-political squabbles be put aside when mourners pay their respects to the three dead firefighters this week? Ratepayers, and indeed all the people who live in the city, would hope so — and that similar tragedies will be averted in the future.