JHB hijacked building fire ‘not surprising’ – it’s the 2nd in a week

Today’s inferno is not the first in a JHB hijacked building. Picture: Vladimir Shipitsin/Pexels

Today’s inferno is not the first in a JHB hijacked building. Picture: Vladimir Shipitsin/Pexels

Published Aug 31, 2023


Johannesburg property owners and managers say the fire that gutted a hijacked building in the CBD on Thursday “is not surprising at all”.

In fact, there was another fire in a hijacked building on the corner of Kerk and Troye streets last week, on August 24; no lives were lost so there was no media attention.

This morning’s fire has so far claimed the lives of more than 70 people.

Angela Rivers, general manager of the Johannesburg Property Owners and Managers Association (JPOMA), says the majority of fires in hijacked buildings occur for two reasons: illegal electricity connections, and people starting fires within the building to cook due to electricity being disconnected.

In this particular Johannesburg CBD building in Marshalltown, the hijackers had built individual shacks within the floors. In many hijacked buildings, Rivers says the residents use office partitions to build walls, and these are obviously highly flammable.

“Due to the internal structures of these hijacked buildings, everything is flammable. Rubbish is not collected so that also piles up, creating fire hazards.

“In another hijacked building I have been into, they had gutted a lift shaft and created a tunnel that they were using as a rubbish bin. Basically, there were five floors of rubbish piling in this shaft.”

Just this morning, she spoke to a member who has bought two buildings next to each other, one of which is an old church that has been hijacked.

“We tell property owners that they need to inform the City immediately after a building is hijacked so that officials can remove the electrical and water infrastructure.”

However, Rivers says the residents of these hijacked buildings will usually dig underneath them and to the buildings alongside, and illegally connect their water and electricity using those buildings’ infrastructures.

“This is also a fire hazard as we have seen before. In a previous fire, a power surge following load shedding disconnected the power of an entire city block and it took fire officials a week to figure out what had happened. It ws lucky that it had not ignited a spark.”

These issues form part of JPOMA’s fight with the City of Joburg.

“Hijacked buildings not only affect landlords and tenants, but seriously degrade the infrastructure of the City. The City also loses money due to rates, water, and electricity services not being paid.”

Rivers says there are many fires that occur in hijacked buildings. The building in which today’s inferno occurred belongs to the City of Joburg and is a heritage building.

“It was the Government’s old ‘Passes’ building and was then turned into a women’s shelter run by Usindiso Ministries. It was a shelter for many years but then hijackers came in and threatened the people running the shelter.”

It also became unsafe for the women living in the shelter.

A clinic was still run from the building, but this eventually stopped as the severity of the hijacking increased.

Early warnings about crime in hijacked buildings

In a joint statement issued to the City of Joburg in December, JPOMA and other organisations – which included the Hillbrow eKhaya City Improvement District, LeGae La Rona City Improvement District, Johannesburg Homelessness Network, Urban Space Management, and Gauteng Precinct Management Association, said hijacked properties in the area had become safe havens for “violent, cold-blooded criminals who actively and transparently continue their activities with evident impunity”.

Not only are tenants being attacked while moving between public transport to work and home, but the environment in which criminal behaviour thrives manifests in fear, poverty, and the erosion of the human condition.

“Adjoining buildings suffer as tenancies drop, forcing upstanding paying tenants out of the city. Criminal behaviour, including public drinking, drug dealing, shootings, and muggings, are rife in the street around these properties, and despite best efforts responsible landlords cannot guarantee the safety of tenants or security companies.”

The organisations suggested that the only way the City could be saved is if “hijacked buildings are urgently and decisively dealt with by inclusion of the private sector”. They listed these actions that needed to be taken:

  • More visible policing by JMPD and SAPS which is also deployed more efficiently
  • By-law enforcement, especially around illegal traders, bars and taverns operating after business hours, drinking and people doing drugs in public
  • Broken street lights need to be fixed immediately
  • Regular day/night raiding operations need to intensify
  • Cross border transporters (illegal bus depots and ranks) need to be checked for permits and licenses and closed down if not compliant and relocated
  • Homelessness needs very serious and immediate intervention
  • Bi-weekly meetings with all departments to track progress of plans.

IOL Business