There was considerable confusion over what caused the blaze that engulfed an apparently illegally occupied building in central Johannesburg on Thursday afternoon.
Hundreds of people had to be evacuated in a 10-story building on the corner of Rissik and De Villiers street in downtown Johannesburg after a fire erupted on the first-floor level. The building is shelter to numerous homeless and working-class people while a variety of smallholding shops occupy the ground floor.
Long-time resident Zamokuhle Mazibuko, 41, said that he suspected foul play as the fire started shortly after City of Johannesburg officials and police officers arrived to conduct a raid in the building.
“I was woken up by two police officers pointing a torch at my face and asking me questions. Immediately after they had left my room, the lady next door to my room ran out of the building saying that it was on fire. I also rushed down to the exit and left everything when one of the guys assured me that, indeed, the building was on fire,” he said.
Mazibuko, who has lived on the first floor of the building since 2003, lost all his belongings including his wallet and clothes. He said he pays R400 a month to the building committee for a one-room apartment, including water and electricity.
Johannesburg Emergency Management Services spokeswoman Nana Radebe confirmed that the fire was put under control and that residents had been permitted to move in again.
City of Joburg group forensic and investigations services spokesperson, Lucky Sindane, could not confirm whether the building was illegally occupied but did say that authorities were had been inside the building shortly before the fire started.
Sindane said that authorities will have to trace down the owner to verify if the building was hijacked, and check its status in terms of monies owed to the City for utilities.
“The City of Johannesburg, together with the South African Police Service (SAPS), we came here earlier on conducting a crime-prevention operation as we normally do on a weekly basis on suspected hijacked buildings. We received a complaint from SAPS to say they suspect that this building has been hijacked,” Sindane said.
“So we came here on a fact-finding mission to see who owns the building and speak to the people and to find out who collects their rent. Our team when they left, because we were still going back to the office with that information to try to trace the owner, and then the building caught fire.”
Sindane said that as soon as the City was able to trace the owner of the building, the Disaster Management Unit would have to intervene and assist destitute people if the owner lodged a complaint that the building was indeed illegally occupied.
Several people were trapped at the top of a building in the Johannesburg central business district on Thursday afternoon after a fire broke out at a block of flats, Johannesburg Emergency Management Services said.
EMS spokeswoman Nana Radebe said the fire broke out in a residential building on Rissik Street.
“We now have two fire engines on scene and the fire is under control,” she said.
“For now, we do not have any injuries reported as yet, but we have people trapped on top of the building, and we are still trying to rescue them.”
Rissik Street, a major street passing in front of Johannesburg Park Station, has been closed off to traffic at Plein Street up to Braamfontein.
The fire appeared to be blazing on the first floor while the building is engulfed by a thick cloud of black smoke. The building is used by homeless people while a variety of smallholding shops occupy the ground floor.
Police on the scene have declined to speak with the media, pushing onlookers as far away as possible.
The cause of the fire remains unknown at this stage.
– African News Agency (ANA)