LISTEN | 'The city knew about that building', witness tells Usindiso commission

05 February 2024 - 20:12
By Kgaugelo Masweneng
Inside the Usindiso building in Marshalltown, Johannesburg, after the fire on August 31 2023 in which 77 died. File photo
Image: Thapelo Morebudi Inside the Usindiso building in Marshalltown, Johannesburg, after the fire on August 31 2023 in which 77 died. File photo

A former resident of the Usindiso building in the Johannesburg CBD, Ben Khumalo, on Monday told the commission of inquiry into the deadly fire on August 31 after he lost his girlfriend in the darkness hers was the first body brought out of the building.

The commission, chaired by retired judge Sisi Khampepe, is hearing testimony from witnesses and survivors of the fire in which 77 people died and many were left destitute.

Like most people woken by shouts that night, he recalled how thick the smoke was and and the darkness as the building was load-shed.

“Amanda was the first one to be taken out as she was taken from the stairs. Losing her is the greatest loss I’ve suffered, it’s painful. I can’t complain about my possessions because everything burnt.

“I have no idea how the fire started,” said Khumalo.

Asked if he knew about drug dealing in the building, he said he was aware of drugs sold on the ground floor.

Thobile Mthembu said she crawled to the stairs at the corner of the building to avoid inhaling smoke.

“The fire was so strong we thought the building would collapse or the flames would jump to the next building where we were after getting out. Some people were lying down, others dropping from jumping and others still inside.”

Her uncle's family and her friend were also living in the building. After several attempts to contact them, she assumed they were dead.

“They all came to live in the building after I made the connections. They lived there after I told them about the place. I started to blame myself. Eventually, I was told they made it out alive. But the other lady from church I had also found a place for was not found.”

After being left destitute, Mthembu moved into the Hofland recreational centre. 

“We got our belongings two weeks after the fire,” she said.

Meanwhile, the case against the 31-year-old man who claimed to be responsible for the fire has been postponed to March 6 for further investigation.

Sthembiso Lawrence Mdlalose was remanded after a brief court appearance in the Johannesburg magistrate's court on Thursday. 

Mdlalose initially confessed to starting the fire at the commission of inquiry and was arrested later that day. He made a second confession before a magistrate the next day.

Asked how the fire might have started, Mthembu said she was familiar with the criminals in the building and had heard the fire was started by them.

“I knew the deceased,” she said, referring to the man Mdlalose is alleged to have killed during a fight earlier that night. He claimed he set his body alight in a bid to destroy evidence but the building quickly caught alight. 

“He [the deceased] was a criminal in the area. What I heard is they tried to hijack a car and they were located in that building and that’s how they ended up dying,” Mthembu said.

She never paid for electricity and water.

“I used to do whatever I wanted and didn’t pay for it. Emotionally I’m not well, I still get scared and panic. I become aggressive if someone approaches me without me realising. Even though our floor didn’t catch fire, I found money and my TV stolen when we were allowed in.

“Financially I’m affected badly. My clothes were on the washing line and though I saw people wearing them, I can’t say they were stolen because some people came out of their rooms naked,” she said.

“My question is how long [had the building] been hijacked? Up to five years and what was done about it? What did the government do?

“The municipality was aware of that building. There was a mobile clinic that used to treat people there. There was also waste removal and police who used to come there. They were aware of what was happening inside,” she said.