by David Neuhaus SJ
A month ago, during the night between August 30 and 31, a nightmare unfolded just a few kilometres away from my home and workplace. Seventy-seven people died in a fire that engulfed a building on Albert Street in downtown Johannesburg. The nightmare has repeatedly played out in my imagination as I followed reports on the event. Seventy-seven lives brutally ended, and hundreds more were made homeless. One commentator said that this tragedy was “horribly inevitable” and chillingly added, “but we simply move on”. Those who perished hardly left a trace. Most of their names were not made known. Their individual stories remain untold. The voices of those who mourn them and miss them are muted.
I have nothing to add to the many words of outrage and protest that were published in the days following the fire, including by the Jesuit Institute. I have nothing to add to the professional analyses and exhaustive information that was provided. My unique reason for writing now is to exhort us not to “simply move on”. Let this event be engraved on our minds and hearts. Let the story of 80 Albert Street be a permanent signpost on our way.
Unable to get to know those who died, I have attempted to get to know the place in which they perished. Without knowing the names of the victims, their death trap at 80 Albert Street must evoke them so that we do not move on. Before the fire, a plaque marked the building, narrating its ominous history. “The Central Pass Office was an infamous checkpoint of the influx control system under apartheid. The “Dompas”, which controlled the movement of African people, was issued here. Denied a place in the city, many were ordered to leave Johannesburg. This building opened in 1954 as the Non-European Affairs Department and was greatly enlarged in the 1960s.” Established to control access to the city, resulting in the exclusion of many, this ominous building became a death trap for those we continue to exclude from access to reasonable conditions of life.
In between these two long chapters of exclusion, the plaque also reminded passersby that when the apartheid system had been finally dismantled, the building was converted and “in 1994, re-named the Usindiso Women’s Shelter”. The shelter housed abused, homeless women, teenage girls and children. Those who ran the shelter tried to turn the structure into a cheerful, accommodating space of inclusion for the new residents. However, the shelter was finally closed in 2018 due to the ongoing deterioration of the physical structure and the threats to the inhabitants from criminal elements who had started to impose a regime of terror on all who entered. A raid by the city authorities in 2019 led to tens of people being charged with illegally extorting money from those seeking shelter there. However, this put a stop neither to the exploitation of the poor nor to the building’s continual crumbling. At that time, city officials had explicitly confirmed that the building was a threat to anyone residing there.
Justified criticism and rage must not replace horrified shock and deep sadness. By some estimates, another six hundred properties in Johannesburg are in a similar plight. Buildings, large and small, houses, and plots that have been abandoned by the authorities and have been turned into makeshift shelters for thousands of the city’s poor, local and migrants. Like the building in Albert Street, many others have fallen under the purvey of unscrupulous gangs. Let us not forget that their residents could meet a similar fate to those who have perished if we dare to simply move on.*
* Another fire broke out in a nearby building on the night of September 15. This time, the firefighters were more successful.