The authorities have asked the families of the victims to go to the Soweto morgue to identify the bodies while search efforts continue in the area.
In the fateful event on Wednesday night, at least 74 people, including 12 children, were killed by fire and smoke. Many of them were trapped as the gates were closed to prevent unauthorized entry into this notoriously high-crime neighborhood.
An investigation has been launched, but this tragic incident has once again highlighted the problem of abandoned buildings falling into the hands of unscrupulous landlords and criminal groups, who rent them mainly to migrants or South Africans living in extreme poverty.
In the heart of the former “city of gold,” which in apartheid times was a prosperous business district, there are about a thousand similar buildings, according to authorities. These buildings are not connected to the electricity grid, and their occupants use gas or paraffin for heating, cooking, and lighting.
During a visit to the crash site, President Cyril Ramaphosa pledged to “address the housing issue” in urban centers.
It should be noted that the building in question was owned by the municipality and was listed as heritage. However, in recent years, it has been “illegally invaded and taken over,” according to local authorities, despite having been used as a shelter for battered women in the past.
Unfortunately, some consider that this tragic event was foreseeable. Opposition councilor Mervyn Cirota points out that many of these buildings are under the control of groups that rent them irregularly, resulting in overcrowding and precarious conditions without access to basic services such as toilets, water, or electricity.
South Africans refer to these buildings as “hijacked,” as police are reluctant to enter them without urgent reason, making them lawless zones where homeless people, families, criminals, and undocumented migrants live together.
This sad episode reflects the chronic homelessness in South Africa, which affects a population of almost 60 million people and where an estimated 3.7 million housing units are missing, according to the Center for Affordable Housing Finance in Africa (CAHF).
In the case of these buildings, it is an organized crime operation where the people involved know the legislation and have a network of contacts. Some even manage to legally obtain land titles, according to Lucky Sindane, a spokesman for the crime squad. Local authorities, the police, and sometimes private security companies specializing in the removal of “squatters” all play a role in this conflict and are often associated with violence in its pursuit.