Residents describe their squalid home‚ now ravaged by fire

05 July 2017 - 17:32
By Naledi Shange
The Cape York building after the fire.
Image: City of Joburg EMS‏ via Twitter The Cape York building after the fire.

For MaButhelezi‚ the clothes‚ blankets and food she lost in a blaze that consumed the dilapidated Johannesburg building she called home are the least of the things she has lost in the 14 years she has lived here.

“My brother was shot right here on the fifth floor several years ago‚” MaButhelezi said‚ standing outside the Cape York building.

“He had been appointed as the caretaker of the building‚” she said.

Now‚ MaButhelezi‚ who is arguably one of Cape York’s longest standing tenants‚ has followed in her brother’s footsteps‚ taking on the position of the lead of the committee for the flats residents.

According to her‚ the building belonged to Mozambican people who left the country several years ago.

She has since been in charge of registering all those who arrived at the building.

One of the residents‚ Jabulani Sibeko‚ said that hundreds of people lived in the building. But MaButhelezi said only 58 had formally been registered with her.

None of them paid rent‚ she said.

Dressed in a white short-sleeved t-shirt and open-toed sandals‚ her dry skin exposed to the cold‚ she said that she‚ her children and grandchild were left with only the clothes on their backs.

Seven of her eight children‚ aged between three and fourteen years‚ were all born in this building. Her seven-month-old grandchild‚ born to her 15-year-old daughter‚ also calls this place home.

“We have lost everything in this fire. Even my stock is gone‚” she said‚ explaining that she had run a small spaza shop inside the building‚ selling mostly tinned food to residents.

MaButhelezi’s business was one of several which operated inside this abandoned building‚ despite it having no electricity and running water. Some residents sold tea and coffee‚ while others sold bread and vetkoek‚

In a bid to salvage anything that she could‚ MaButhelezi earlier ran down the street‚ chasing after a group of young men whom she had seen walking out of the building‚ carrying the metal frame of a bed.

A total of seven people were killed in the blaze.

One died after leaping out of a window on the third floor. His lifeless body lay on the ground‚ with his old worn-out sneakers protruding from the silver foil which covered his corpse.

Six others died inside the building‚ some from smoke inhalation and others who were ravaged by the flames.

Seven more residents were taken to hospital for treatment.

Deto Mabali said the man who died was his neighbour back in Nagoya in Maputo province‚ Mozambique.

Naming him as Mikita Tokene‚ he said the deceased man used to live three houses away from him‚ though they were not friends in Maputo.

"I later met him addicted to Nyaope and looking dirty in the streets of Johannesburg and we have since kept contact.

"I often visited him here as I live in Rossentenville and sell (goods) in the city. His friend who lives here called me this morning and told me that he had died jumping from floor three.

"I am saddened and I will immediately call back home and ask them to inform his family about this tragedy‚" he said soberly.

Khabonina Mfiki‚ originally from Zola in Soweto‚ said: "I am sad to see Mikita‚ our Maputo friend‚ lying dead helplessly".

"He was a funny‚ humble and kind person. All he did was fix cars and sell sweets‚ he was not a harmful person."

An estimated 50 people were rescued from the building‚ after six fire engines and 34 firefighters responded.

The first report of the blaze was received at 8.49am on Wednesday. The cause is still unknown and is being investigated by law enforcement authorities.

MaButhelezi claimed that on Wednesday morning‚ she heard screams in the hallway and was told that a fire had started.

“There was a person who was smoking next to the generator and somehow‚ he started the fire. He ran away once the building caught alight‚” MaButhelezi said.

Mfiki also believes the fire was started with a cigarette butt carelessly tossed: "We use generators and candles for electricity and when the petrol spills because no one maintains them‚ the place becomes susceptible to fires. Apparently the person who started it was smoking."

MaButhelezi said: “This is the third fire that has happened here."

“The first one happened a few years ago when one girl dumped her boyfriend and he decided to pour petrol and burn the room. In the other fire‚ no one was killed‚” she said. Four people including a baby died in the August 2013 fire‚ on the seventh floor of the building.

Today‚ scores of people‚ some sitting alongside their children‚ sat on the pavements close to the burnt building which had been cordoned by the police.

As MaButhelezi walked down the street she pointed at several young men‚ some of whom seemed to be under the influence of some of other substance.

“They also lost everything‚” she said‚ asking them whether they had registered their names on the list of those who had been left displaced.

According to Mfiki‚ life in the Cape York abandoned building revolves around drug addiction.

"When you have a need for a fix you don't even think of anything‚ not even food‚" she told TimesLIVE.

Mbali Shirindza said they have no landlord‚ do not pay rent and are not accountable to anyone.

"Anyone that's stranded is welcome in here‚ you can even come through a friend.

"The place is mostly an open area where you can just sleep‚ it's like sleeping outside‚ except there's a roof.

"We are overcrowded and we get sick and spread the illnesses amongst each other. There are shacks inside‚ it's filthy‚ and rats are one of us too‚" said Shirindza.

But as soon as the police‚ the media and mortuaries had concluded their business‚ they would return into the building‚ MaButhelezi said.

“We have nowhere else to go‚” she asserted.

Mfiki also said: "This is our home‚ we are going back in after this‚ we have no choice."

The City of Johannesburg has‚ however‚ promised to assist the stranded residents - and to block access to the building.

Executive Mayor Herman Mashaba‚ who was on scene earlier‚ said the City’s Disaster Management Unit is assisting the building’s displaced residents with finding alternative accommodation‚ blankets and food.

“The building has been declared a crime scene for the duration of this investigation; we have agreed with the building’s owner that it will be sealed once the investigation is complete‚” he said.

Mashaba warned slumlords that he intended to shut them down.

“Moving forward‚ I remain committed to working with EMS in our efforts to get all hijacked buildings in the City declared unsafe and unsanitary; raids of these hijacked buildings will also be increased.

His plan is‚ with the help of various property developers and government entities‚ to transform currently rundown and hijacked buildings into better quality low cost housing for residents as well as affordable rental spaces for small businesses.

- Additional reporting by Kgaugelo Masweneng