Firefighters Simphiwe Moropane, Khathutshelo Muedi and Mduduzi Ndlovu lost their lives in a tragic and harrowing manner in the fire that engulfed the top floors of the Bank of Lisbon building in the Johannesburg city centre last week.
Investigations are still under way to establish the exact events that led to their deaths, but it is no secret the working conditions of the firefighters in the Johannesburg emergency management services have been far from ideal for many years. It was only a matter of time before lives were lost in the manner that they were in this particular instance.
One of the most unsettling claims being made about the incident is that the water pressure in the water mains outside the building was too low for the firefighting operation to have begun in the first place.
The firefighters may have flouted one of the most basic rules in their own training manuals. But that should not absolve their management and political heads of culpability in their deaths. It is unacceptable that a city as large as Johannesburg should have as many as 89 vehicles out of service.
Mayor Herman Mashaba’s anticorruption crusade may also have played a role in how the incident played out, but that is not to lay direct blame on the mayor. Having stopped the acquisition of 29 new firefighting trucks due to suspected corruption in the procurement process, what plans have been put in place for the emergency teams to continue working?
All too often, when deaths occur in instances that could have been avoided, very little is done to hold to account management or political office bearers for their contribution to the decisions that led to the deaths. And until that happens, SA will continue to experience these unnecessary deaths regularly.
The EFF were the first party to come out and advocate for charges against the MEC for human settlements Uhuru Moiloa for the deaths of the firefighters. Although this might be a political move to make their opponents appear incompetent, it is a move in the right direction.
The Democratic Nursing Organisation of SA Denosa, which has been fighting for the relocation of the inhabitants of the building, also alleged the Gauteng MEC for infrastructure development said the relocation of the government workers in those buildings would not happen because renovations had been undertaken and the building was safe.
This building is one in a long list that have been found to be unfit for inhabitants for several reasons, including being fire hazards, yet a week before last week’s deadly fire, a political head came out and contradicted reports on the state of the buildings.
It is clear that a combination of factors contributed to the unnecessary deaths of the firefighters: poor working conditions in Johannesburg Emergency Services, negligence by both provincial departments of human settlement and infrastructure development, and delays in the finalisation of the tender for the acquisition of the new fire engines by the Johannesburg mayoral office.
Chances are that when – not if – the next terrible incident occurs, we will still have not seen anyone in management or the political leadership prosecuted for the current deaths.
Poor working conditions do not occur by accident, they are created by the poor and incompetent actions of management and political leaders. Those people need to be held legally responsible for those deaths.