At least 73 people are dead and 52 injured after a raging fire in a five-storey building in Johannesburg city centre in South Africa.
Their deaths are a direct result of the lack of resources and care for homeless people. Officially there are 1.2 million people in the province that is centred on Johannesburg who are looking for somewhere to live.
Seven of the dead were children, the youngest a 1-year-old, according to an emergency services spokesperson.
A sign on the entrance to the gutted block shows it was a heritage building of South Africa’s previous system of systematic racism—apartheid. It was where black South Africans came to collect their “dompas” – documents that would enable them to work in white-owned areas of the city.
Workers’ struggle smashed that system. But the pro-capitalist government that followed has not transformed the lives of the poor.
They are reduced to squatting in the relics of apartheid.
Some of those who died are undocumented migrants, who face xenophobic assaults from state authorities and others. These are people who make a living as cleaners or domestic servants or by selling food on the streets.
The building where the fire took place is owned by the Johannesburg city council but was wholly neglected.
Homeless and desperate people moved in when it was left empty for a long time. They sought shelter from the cold during the present winter months.
Slum landlords also infest the area, offering wretched housing to people who have almost nothing.
Inevitably, such accommodation becomes overcrowded and is often dangerous. Fires are a constant threat in “informal settlements” across South Africa where power is not supplied and people use candles or makeshift electricity connections.
As bodies lined the street outside the smouldering building, the Daily Maverick news website said fire escapes had been sealed, trapping people inside.
One resident, Nokwazi Mabuza, said, “People set up blankets on the ground for us to jump out. I had to jump out from the third floor with my four-year-old.”
Mabuza is an immigrant from Swaziland and has lived in the building for four years. She said the building is poorly maintained but is closer to her part-time job at a clothing firm.
“Electricity is not connected well, sometimes we do it ourselves. Even the water we use is the water that is meant to be for emergencies like fire,” said Mabuza.
To maintain rudimentary security, residents had set up gates on each floor that could be locked at night. They say that is why some people were stuck.
The South African socialist group Keep Left told Socialist Worker, “The authorities have been quick to jump on the bandwagon of blaming the poor for the horror. They say people highjacked the building and should not have been staying there.
“This fits in with the rising xenophobia that we are experiencing in the country, as poor and desperate migrants are targeted as the villains for the problems that capitalism creates.”
The ruling African National Congress (ANC) party said, “We urge law enforcement authorities to ensure that those responsible for this tragedy are held accountable.”
Those responsible are not just those who directly oppress the homeless. They are the ANC ministers and politicians who, nearly 30 years after the end of apartheid, have let the corporations and capitalist priorities rule.
The Abahlali baseMjondolo shack dwellers’ movement said, “Just as with the Grenfell Tower Fire in London in 2017 that took 72 lives, and just like the shack fires that tear through our communities year after year, this fire is a direct result of the contempt for the lives of the poor by politicians and the state.
“Last Sunday five children died in a shack fire in the Itireleng shack settlement in Pretoria. Shack fires are relentless. We are left to burn year after year. In South Africa to be poor is to live with the constant risk of fire.
“We are sad to the depth of our souls. We are also deeply, deeply angry. We are angry that the poor are left to live in life-threatening conditions. We are angry that politicians from both the ANC and the DA have swept in like vultures to blame both the victims and progressive lawyers, lawyers who are on the side of the poor.
“We are angry at the xenophobic organisations and individuals who have celebrated the fire because some of the people who have lost their lives are migrants.
“A neighbour is a neighbour, a worker is a worker and a comrade is a comrade irrespective of where they were born. We demand that the politicians and the state accept responsibility for this disaster and commit themselves to ensuring decent and safe living conditions for all.”
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