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At least 73 people died and dozens more have been injured after a fire swept through an apartment block in Johannesburg’s central business district in the early hours of Thursday.
The building in the Marshalltown neighbourhood had been occupied by a number of homeless people, in what a spokesperson for Johannesburg’s emergency service said was “an informal settlement”.
Firefighters led an evacuation but a gate inside the building meant “many people could not get out” as the fire raged, said Mgcini Tshwaku, a city government official responsible for public safety. “The main reason for the high death toll here is a lot of partitions and gates inside the building.”
Informal shacks inside the building had also been constructed using highly flammable material such as wood, Tshwaku added.
The cause of the blaze is not known and officials said the death toll could rise.
“It’s a wake-up call for us to begin to address housing in the inner city,” President Cyril Ramaphosa said during a visit to the site. “We are not standing here to pass blame on anyone.”
“If anything, we are all responsible for the calamity that has occurred . . . we should be learning a lesson,” he added.
Johannesburg’s historic city centre has been in decline for decades, with many derelict city-owned buildings illegally occupied by squatters.
Lawyers and activists in the city say political failures have exacerbated housing problems, leading to overcrowding and tenants being preyed on by slum landlords.
Politicians in turn have blamed civil society groups for legal challenges that have held up efforts to remove squatters that would allow buildings to be renovated.
The issue is highly charged because many squatters are foreign migrants, scratching a living in the informal economy as cleaners, security guards and casual labourers. The nationalities of those who died in Thursday’s fire are not yet known.
The areas around Marshalltown were at the heart of Johannesburg’s transformation from a 19th-century mining settlement to an industrial metropolis. But in recent years, many of South Africa’s biggest companies have decamped to the suburbs because of concerns about security and the city’s crumbling infrastructure.
The decay has worsened as the municipal government descended into political turmoil after the African National Congress lost control in local elections in 2021.
The ANC worked with smaller parties to force the collapse of an opposition coalition and has since backed mayors from Al Jama-ah, a small Islamic party, in a highly unstable arrangement.
The current mayor was set to face a vote of no confidence this week just months after he was installed, but the opposition withdrew the motion after divisions among parties.
In July an underground gas explosion wrecked one of the city’s busiest downtown thoroughfares, killing one person and injuring many more.