'Criminality at Usindiso was out of control,' man testifies

29 January 2024 - 21:14
By Kgaugelo Masweneng
A total of 76 people were killed when a building in Marshalltown, Johannesburg, was engulfed by fire on August 31 2023. File photo.
Image: THULANI MBELE AFTERMATH A total of 76 people were killed when a building in Marshalltown, Johannesburg, was engulfed by fire on August 31 2023. File photo.

A month before the Usindiso building fire in Marshalltown, Johannesburg, last year, a man was shot dead and his friend wounded when a person who suspected them of having robbed him found them in the building.

This was testimony by one of 15 of 340 affected people interviewed to record the losses and consequences of the inferno in August last year which killed 76 people.

Kenneth Dube took the stand at the Usindiso Commission of Inquiry on Monday and gave an account of how the hijacked building’s identity shifted during his stay after he moved in in 2019.

“I witnessed an old man in his 60s being robbed and stabbed in the stomach outside the building. Police came and they left him on the road bleeding as they said he couldn’t identify the thieves.

“The suspects had run into the building and disappeared. A month before, on the second floor, someone was shot because [a person] who suspected them of having robbed [him] came into the building and shot two people, one dead. We started feeling safer on the streets than in the building,” Dube said.

They had people from Zimbabwe and Malawi living in the building at first and all seemed to be normal until Tanzanians later started moving in and brought trouble, turning the building into a drug den.

“We tried to fight the crime. We engaged police and asked them to close a gate at the back where there used to be a clinic, as this was an entrance criminals used to enter the building after committing crimes,” he said.

He arrived at the building in 2019 after he was told there were vacant and affordable rooms there.

“I met a woman called Nomthandazo who lived on the first floor. In our conversation it was revealed that I am Zulu. She said it would be a problem because they preferred foreigners to rent as locals gave them problems.

“She said they mostly didn’t want to pay once they found out the building belonged to the government. After further discussion she agreed and I was to pay R1,200 a month. Eventually, they decided I [should] rather buy the room as I had payment issues.

The agreement was he would buy the room for R4,000 instead of being evicted.

“Things were OK in the building, we were few and there was no crime. Over time more people started to live in the building. Criminality started also when Mozambicans came to live there. They started to steal taps and metal and rob people,” Dube said.

He said the first and fourth floors were clean and orderly.

“Each floor had a gate because sometimes they would rob people in the building. The first floor, where I stayed, was clean because we would discuss what sort of people we welcomed. We didn’t want Tanzanians as they were violent and fought all the time.”

The fourth floor was also clean.

“The water we used was from the fire extinguisher after the city cut off water and electricity. There were shacks erected by residents who wanted to make more money,” he said.

On the night of the fire, Dube saved himself by jumping out of a window.

A man was contemplating throwing a child out the window to save them.

“The man was screaming, carrying the baby in his arms. He was shouting, ‘my baby, my baby’. He dropped the baby out of the window. Then he disappeared back down the passage but returned almost immediately and jumped out the window himself.”

Dube said he was later told the mother of the child had died in the fire and the child had an arm injury.