Usindiso fire victims relive trauma as suspect makes court appearance

26 January 2024 - 19:24
By Kgaugelo Masweneng
A total of 76 people were killed when a building in Marshalltown, Johannesburg was engulfed by fire on August 31 2023.  A man has confessed to starting the fire and is currently in custody. File photo.
Image: THULANI MBELE A total of 76 people were killed when a building in Marshalltown, Johannesburg was engulfed by fire on August 31 2023. A man has confessed to starting the fire and is currently in custody. File photo.

The confession this week by a witness at the Usindiso commission of inquiry that he started the deadly fire that led to the deaths of 76 people in the Johannesburg CBD building in August last year has caused some survivors to relive the trauma.

On Thursday, Sthembiso Lawrence Mdlalose made his first appearance at the Johannesburg magistrate’s court on one count of arson, 76 counts of murder and 86 counts of attempted murder.

This is after he had confessed at the commission, chaired by judge Sisi Khampepe, that he started the deadly fire to conceal evidence after he killed someone.

A survivor, Thandi Tshikitsha, said though she was relieved someone had been arrested, the news brought back memories she was still trying to forget.

“It’s bringing back the pain. Children died, people died and we find out that it was for something this useless.

“When you hear that the person [suspect] was found is painful. A part of you wishes he wasn’t found, the wounds are fresh. Our hearts are broken, there’s no amount of sentence that can take it away, it’s something we will live with and some of us even have physical scars,” she said.

Tshikitsha said she injured her leg while escaping through a window.

“I was so scared and took some time contemplating throwing myself and my grandchild out [the burning building]. I heard a loud a bang. When I opened the door and it was so dark, you couldn’t see anything. We went back inside the room, I thought I was going to die in there.

“We braved going out and we found there were people all over the passage. I saw that people were throwing their children out. I saw a boy from next door and he helped take the child.”

She said load-shedding was taking place and she was worried as she had a gas cylinder in her room, so she fled. She said many people she knew on her floor did not make it out.

“There was overcrowding at Charlotte Maxeke hospital and we didn’t get help immediately. What we went through was horrible. My spinal cord was injured, I couldn’t sit, bath myself or move.

“When they took me for an X-ray and luckily my spinal cord was fine. I went through two operations for my leg. There was a hole on one of them. I was discharged after six weeks,” Tshikitsha said.

Mdlalose claimed at the inquiry he had beaten and strangled another resident while high on drugs.

He said he poured petrol on the body and started a fire to cover up the murder.

The blaze spread rapidly, leading to the inferno which devastated the building on August 31. He will appear in court again on February 1 as the state needs to verify his citizenship and addresses.

Nomzamo Zondo, executive director of the Social Economic Rights Institute of South Africa (Seri), said this was probably the first time that a single person had accepted responsibility for so many deaths.

“In the recent period, you would have Life Esidimeni, Marikana and the July 2021 unrest but it was several incidents. But this is a single incident, this is probably the first time that one person takes responsibility for so many deaths,” Zondo said.

Wynand Engelbrecht, chief fire officer at Fire Ops SA — a privately owned firefighting brigade — who took the stand in the commission last week, said the fire could be characterised as one of Africa’s deadliest.

Another survivor, Kenneth Dube said he was still traumatised by what happened and had not yet made peace.

“I’m still in pain sometimes, it doesn’t go away. And now to know there's someone arrested for doing such a horrible thing maybe that can heal spiritually. Because we are really hurt,” Dube said.

National Prosecuting Authority spokesperson Phindi Mjonondwane said on Thursday though the accused had made an admission, “as the prosecution we cannot rely on the evidence that was presented in the commission”.

“The state is currently busy with its own investigation to get evidence that will corroborate what we have at our disposal. We can confirm that a confession has been reduced in front of a magistrate.” Mjonondwane said.

Mdlalose’s legal representative, Dumisani Mabunda, said he was still studying the confession his client allegedly made.

“It’s already on record that he has made admissions on the matter. What is of paramount importance is the safety of our client.

“There is an arrangement that he should be kept in a private cell. My instruction is that he made the confession voluntarily and co-operated with the police at all times.” Mabunda said.