Few things speak more eloquently of desperation and despair than a person jumping from a building to avoid being engulfed by fire. We saw that this week when an inner-city building in Johannesburg caught alight.
In addition, six other people died from burns or smoke inhalation, while at least another seven were injured.
That horror – of being trapped high above the ground while all around you blazes – is something which grabbed our attention only a few weeks ago when the Grenfell Tower disaster in London made news around the world.
In Johannesburg, though, the circumstances were markedly different. The place where the fire broke out, the Cape York building, is one of 85 in the CBD and in Hillbrow which have either been “hijacked” from their owners or where landlords refuse to improve the premises. People live in squalor there. Cape York had no electricity or running water for the 100 “tenants” who paid rent for their pitiful “homes”.
Police Minister Fikile Mbalula visited the building last month, as did Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba. In the wake of the tragedy, Mbalula demanded that the building be demolished, while Mashaba complained that “human rights lawyers” were preventing the city from evicting people from what was clearly a death trap.
Both men are right. Action needs to be taken to crack down on building hijackings and against exploitative landlords. The CBD must be cleaned up.
Yet we must not forget this is a tragedy, a typically South African one where the victims are people so desperate they flock to our cities to survive.
They all have the basic human right to decent accommodation. We cannot let them down and we cannot have more tragedies like this.