A commission of inquiry began on Thursday to ascertain accountability for a tragic fire in Johannesburg, which resulted in the loss of 77 lives. This incident has shed light on the living conditions of the victims and highlighted the activities of gangs that unlawfully occupy, and lease abandoned buildings. Regarded as one of the most devastating disasters in recent history in South Africa’s economic hub, the fire occurred on August 31 in a dilapidated building that was overcrowded by predominantly foreign migrants. The intensity of the blaze resulted in the victims burning beyond recognition.

By Staff Reporter

It feels like an eternity has passed since the heart-wrenching inferno claimed the lives of 77 people in the Johannesburg Central Business District (CBD). But finally, the wheels of justice have begun to turn as the commission of inquiry into the Usindiso building tragedy kicked off its first public proceedings on Thursday morning.

The tragedy sent shockwaves across the globe, thrusting the predicament of hijacked buildings in the CBD into the piercing glare of public scrutiny.

During his testimony to the commission of inquiry, Rapulane Monageng, the acting chief of Johannesburg Emergency Management Services (EMS), disclosed that the Usindiso building, which has been extensively damaged, had limited access due to the obstruction or improper sealing of all but one entrance. Furthermore, they observed that the building lacked essential fire safety equipment such as fire extinguishers and fire hoses.

In his testimony, Monageng provided a sombre and detailed account of the haunting aftermath that awaited the officials who ventured into the burnt remnants of the building. He meticulously described the distressing conditions that these courageous individuals encountered.

“During the firefighting or fire incident, all members of the building were forced to use [an 80cm] door to evacuate. This is not up to South African standards, as I said earlier on … [an] emergency door was closed off and this [door gave daily] access to the building, which compromised, in our understanding, the evacuation of the building in total,” said Monageng.

The emergency routes and rooms that were still available were either barricaded or sealed off using improvised burglar doors or wooden boards. The residents obtained the wooden boards and plastic materials from the back of the building and used them to create or separate rooms.

The commission, led by retired judge Sisi Khampepe, assisted by Advocate Thulani Makhubela and Vuyelwa Mathilda Mabena, also heard that people were packed in overcrowded and hazardous makeshift dwellings.

Approximately 200 people were crammed into rudimentary wooden shacks on the ground floor, which were created by dividing rooms with wood brought in from outside, blocking emergency escape routes, and stairwells that were turned into ramshackle rooms are just a few of the numerous fire hazards that were mentioned.

According to Monageng’s testimony, when a building is taken over by rogue elements, “it becomes a fire time bomb.”

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