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Johannesburg’s catastrophic CBD fire is a tale of one city’s non-accountability crisis

- Adjunct Professor Alex van den Heever

Catastrophic events draw the attention-hungry media into the staggering horror of the moment which, although understandable, pulls the focus away from the years it took to cause the catastrophe.

Long-term patterns are, however, not newsworthy. Only when they manifest themselves as crises do they become momentarily interesting. But if the attention drifts off, and the drivers of a momentary crisis remain in place, nothing really changes. When the drivers of crises become embedded in systems that reproduce and protect themselves, the problems run deep, become more complex and are resilient to simple interventions.

The deaths of at least 76 occupants of the Johannesburg Metro-owned death trap and former “Albert Street Pass Office” has become the latest in a long line of events that largely reflect similar patterns.

These include, inter alia: the collapse of Eskom due to acts of sabotage and corruption; the deaths of about 80 patients when the Gauteng Department of Health outsourced chronic mental health patient care to unlicensed healthcare providers; the violence by zama zamas in Krugersdorp and Riverlea that drew attention to the failure of government to manage closed mines in and around Johannesburg; the cholera outbreak centred at Hamanskraal with upward of 50 deaths, which drew attention to failed water and sanitation management by government; the fire at the Bank of Lisbon Building, the headquarters of the Gauteng Department of Health, which resulted in the deaths of three fireman seen together with fires at eight public hospitals in Gauteng (including arson at Charlotte Maxeke Academic Hospital), which drew attention to the failures of facilities management by the Gauteng Department of Infrastructure Development; the murder of Babita Deokaran, the head of supply chain management at the Gauteng Department of Health, who was exposing corruption at, inter alia, Tembisa Hospital; the explosion on Bree Street (now Lilian Ngoyi Street), which revealed the failure of preventive maintenance by the City of Johannesburg and the province; and the theft of strategic transport and energy infrastructure by syndicates with possible links to the relevant public organisations and politicians.

In these cases, avoiding the crisis outcome needed sustained periods of investment in policy development, systems, infrastructure, high-quality teams and expert specialised law enforcement support.

In all instances, however, such investments are nowhere to be found. First, because preventive action is largely missing – with no sustained policy frameworks or investments that ultimately hit the ground. Second, when laws are broken, investigations disappear into the ether and/or get “fumbled” by the National Prosecuting Authority.

There is, therefore, no accountability for the policy failures or the lawlessness – whether perpetrated by parts of the government or private interests.

The absence of accountability is, however, no accident. The repeated narrative that foreign migrants and civil society bodies are to blame for these “complex” problems is a crude, but noteworthy deflection – straight out of the dictator’s playbook. Just pick on a vulnerable group that can’t fight back and make them into a monstrous bogeyman that explains all the ills you caused, past, present and future.

But the question this narrative desperately tries to avoid, is how a government, with all its powers and resources, ends up being weaker than a community with few effective protected rights and a motley crew of precarious civil society actors?

The answer, however, is quite simple. Government has become captured by criminal elements operating through the governing party, who divert state resources into their pockets. Provided you can keep people fooled using the dictator’s playbook, no one holds you to account, and the theft continues. As the collapse of public assets and services is inevitable, you need a ready-made reliable counternarrative to evade accountability.

If you want to know who is to blame for preventable crises, however, look no further than those resorting to the dictator’s playbook – as indelible a red flag as Lady Macbeth’s “damned spot” – “What need we fear who knows it when none can call our power to account?”

Strategically placed politicians effectively line their pockets, while occasionally offering some public services as a “side-hustle” – this to maintain the pretence that they are serving the people.

Behind the scenes of bluff and bluster, however, not much happens for the people. Posts either involve patronage appointments, who are not expected to deliver anything, or ghost appointments, which are used to syphon funds from government. When services in any way depend on procurement, the patronage appointments ensure the contracts go to designated companies, who are also not expected to deliver much. This way you get the unfinished low-income housing, the wrong, and over-priced computer system, and skinny jeans instead of medical equipment.

After a while, infrastructure decays, and complex social problems linger unresolved, surfacing only once critical thresholds are passed. And then, shock and horror, you have a crisis that only a very special minister on top of a pile of ministers can solve – with multiple public appearances and the dictator’s playbook in hand.  

The Albert Street Pass Office fire exhibits all the signs of this despicable pattern. Up until 2018, this building, owned by the city, was in a serviceable condition and being managed as a shelter for abused women by an NGO. A criminal syndicate chased the NGO out in that year, and the city took no action despite requests for intervention. Under the noses of the city, for the next five years the syndicate sublet the property, without a lease with the owner (the city) or paying rates and taxes.

Even the slowest of strategies would have borne fruit by now – but the city walked away from their asset and wilfully ignored the law-breaking and risks to the public occurring on their own property. The question is: Why?

Of the 57 listed hijacked buildings (yes, there is a list), at least 29 (or 51%) are actually owned by the City of Johannesburg. Their addresses are known, their condition is known, the unsafe conditions are known, the breaches of safety laws are known, the non-payment of rates and taxes are known. So where is the strategy? Where is the action plan?

Consistent with the dictator’s playbook, migrants are now publicly blamed, with the NGOs that protect them from unlawful evictions argued to be the cause. Not mentioned is the fact that there is no documented strategy to show how the city’s property portfolio is to be managed. Effectively the city has abandoned 29 buildings they own – without any strategy.

In the Draft Integrated Development Plan 2022/27 for the Johannesburg Metro, no strategy is outlined other than stipulating an intention to investigate 95% of “hijacked/problem properties”.

The city defines a hijacked property as:

“… properties that are characterised by criminal elements where the individual or a group of people misrepresenting themselves as lawful owners solicits money from the occupiers. Problem Properties are characterised by contravention of the City’s Bylaws and other relevant National and /or Provincial legislations.”  

The report, however, fails to mention that they own 51% of the hijacked properties. As the city is plainly aware of the criminal conduct involved in their own buildings, it is remarkable that no mention is made of criminal proceedings against parties “misrepresenting themselves as lawful owners”. No timeline is mentioned to do anything, and no mention is made of NGO “obstruction” through the courts.

The possible steps to addressing the problem of hijacked buildings could illustratively involve about seven steps.

  • Step 1: Identify and pursue criminal charges against the “criminal elements”, who should not be hard to identify.
  • Step 2: Intercept any money transfers from the abused tenants to the “criminal elements”.
  • Step 3: Immediately mitigate any safety concerns in the buildings.
  • Step 4: Identify and prepare alternative decent accommodation for tenants.
  • Step 5: Demarcate and prepare lawful processes to address illegal immigrants resident in the building.
  • Step 6: Request the voluntary transfer of tenants to the alternative accommodation prepared through Step 4.
  • Step 7: For tenants failing to abide by the voluntary transfer process, adopt the eviction route, which, if lawful, will not be obstructed by the courts. 

While this could take time, if properly prepared and implemented it should address the problem and root out the syndicates.

Given that the City of Johannesburg owns the buildings that have been left to be run by criminal elements, they are quite possibly civilly and criminally liable for the deaths and all associated breaches of the law. This liability could, and hopefully will, extend to individual office bearers – both members of the executive and accounting officers. If this is the case, such liability will extend to all the other properties owned by the city.

Furthermore, independent investigations should ascertain whether there are links between the “criminal elements” and city officials, members of the executive, Gauteng politicians and members of law enforcement.

In summary, a rock has been lifted on the conduct of the Johannesburg Metropolitan Government. There should be nowhere to hide. Accountability must prevail, no matter how high it goes. The rot in the city must end, and the rotten must be fired, sued and jailed. Only then will we be able to move from the worst of all worlds to the best. 

This article first appeared on the Daily Maverick.