Decay of South Africa’s ‘City of Gold’ Evident in a Building Marred by Fire and Death

In the aftermath of the devastating fire and smoke that engulfed a dilapidated apartment block in Johannesburg, leaving behind a trail of at least 76 horrific deaths, there remains a solitary reminder of the building’s history.

Amidst the wreckage, a circular plaque still hangs on the brown brick exterior, bearing witness to the tragic events that unfolded within its walls.

The plaque, adorned with a concise five-sentence inscription, serves as a testament to the building’s past. No. 80 Albert Street, the site of one of South Africa’s most harrowing inner-city tragedies, once functioned as a central pass office during the dark era of apartheid, a system of racial segregation that plagued the nation.

This office served as a checkpoint, enforcing a despised law that controlled the movement of Black people throughout the country.

The inscription on the plaque poignantly highlights the grim reality faced by those who lacked the necessary pass from the apartheid government to work in Johannesburg, as it solemnly states that without this documentation, individuals were effectively “denied a place” in the city.

It is disheartening to acknowledge that despite the end of apartheid nearly 30 years ago, the building in question continued to perpetuate exclusionary practices until last Thursday.

This unfortunate truth came to light when a devastating fire engulfed the structure, claiming the lives of numerous South Africans as well as impoverished foreign migrants who had found themselves on the fringes of society.

The city, which boasts of being Africa’s wealthiest, failed to extend its prosperity and opportunities to these marginalized individuals, resulting in their tragic demise.

This sobering incident serves as a stark reminder of the ongoing struggles faced by those on the periphery of society, highlighting the urgent need for comprehensive reform and equitable access to resources and opportunities for all.

The dire circumstances faced by approximately 200 families living in Johannesburg prompted them to seek any form of accommodation available, leading them to discover a five-story block that had been abandoned and left in ruins by the authorities.

These families resorted to paying rent to unofficial “landlords” who had unlawfully taken control of the building.

Termed as “hijacked buildings” in Johannesburg, these structures have become emblematic of the city’s deterioration.

They symbolize not only the decay of South Africa’s most significant urban center but also the perceived failure of the post-apartheid government to provide a dignified existence for the impoverished Black majority.

The aftermath of a tragic fire that claimed the lives of entire families further fueled the anger of South Africans when city officials admitted that the building in question was owned by the city itself.

Despite this revelation, the officials had neglected to assume responsibility for the building or its inhabitants, who were forced to reside in cramped shacks scattered throughout every nook and cranny, including the parking garage.

“This has been a long time coming and it will keep happening until the city wakes up. It’s devastating,” lamented Angela Rivers, the general manager of the Johannesburg Property Owners and Managers Association.

Rivers expressed her frustration, stating that numerous government departments were fully aware of the deplorable conditions of hijacked buildings scattered throughout the city center, yet they fail to take the matter seriously.

In an effort to address the dire situation, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa visited the scene of the recent fire, positioning himself among the poverty-stricken residents of downtown Johannesburg, and attempted to provide reassurance.

“We are a caring government,” Ramaphosa asserted. “Though we may fall short at times, our determination to care for the people of South Africa remains a top priority.”

However, the promises made by the ruling African National Congress party, which guided South Africa out of the dark era of apartheid and has been in power since the first democratic elections in 1994, are beginning to lose credibility.

Johannesburg has become a focal point for these perceived failures. The city’s infrastructure is in a state of deep crisis, with problems ranging from burst water pipes and crumbling roads to a malfunctioning electricity supply and trash accumulating on street corners.

The plight of Johannesburg exemplifies the larger challenges faced by the country as a whole. It is a stark reminder that despite the progress made over the past few decades, there is still much work to be done to uplift the lives of ordinary South Africans and ensure that the promises of a better future are fulfilled.

The government must take urgent and decisive action to address these issues, as the people of South Africa deserve nothing less.

Founded over a century ago on a vast gold reef, Johannesburg has always held a magnetic allure for Black South Africans. Initially, it attracted men who left their families behind to embark on arduous journeys aboard steam trains, drawn to the gold mines that promised prosperity and opportunity.

This poignant narrative was immortalized in the soul-stirring song “Stimela” by the legendary jazz musician Hugh Masekela, resonating deeply with the collective consciousness of South Africa.

In the wake of apartheid and the subsequent dismantling of its oppressive pass laws, Johannesburg experienced a rapid and remarkable urbanization.

Its population surged from 1.8 million in 1990 to an estimated 6 million today, as people from all walks of life continue to flock to the “city of gold.” However, amidst this influx, a disconcerting reality looms large in the form of the Gauteng province’s staggering unemployment rate, standing at a daunting 36%.

This figure surpasses even the national unemployment rate of 33%, which already holds the dubious distinction of being the highest in the world.

Distressingly, within the province, approximately 1.2 million individuals find themselves without shelter, with Johannesburg bearing the brunt of this housing crisis.

Lebogang Lechuba, a representative of the South African Cities Network, an organization dedicated to analyzing urban development, aptly captures the prevailing sentiment when he asserts that “things have gotten worse with time.” Nevertheless, the allure of Johannesburg remains undiminished, drawing in more and more people, undeterred by the mounting challenges.

The first signs of trouble for Johannesburg emerged in the late 1990s as major corporations began abandoning the city center in favor of the newly established financial district of Sandton, situated approximately 10 miles (16 kilometers) to the north.

Despite this exodus, Johannesburg still boasts more millionaires than any other city on the African continent, as reported by this year’s World’s Wealthiest Cities Report.

However, the stark contrast between the gleaming silver high-rises of Sandton and the dilapidated heart of old Johannesburg serves as a stark reminder of the profound inequality that plagues South Africa.

Indeed, the country stands as one of the most unequal nations in the world, as evidenced by the glaring disparity between its affluent elite and the struggling masses.

In conclusion, Johannesburg’s history is intertwined with the pursuit of gold and the dreams it represents. Despite the challenges it faces, the city’s allure remains strong, drawing in people from all corners of South Africa.

However, the glaring socio-economic disparities and the housing crisis underscore the urgent need for comprehensive solutions to address the inequalities that persist.

Only through concerted efforts and a commitment to inclusive development can Johannesburg truly fulfill its potential as a city of opportunity for all its inhabitants.

The gradual decline of central Johannesburg was initially a slow process, as money slowly seeped away from the city.

Volker von Widdern, a risk analyst for businesses, explained that the degradation continued until it reached a tipping point.

He compared this process to a series of falling dominos, where the impact of one falling domino may not be fully appreciated, but the cumulative effect of multiple falling dominos can be catastrophic.

Despite recent voter turnouts against the ruling ANC, Johannesburg’s prospects have not improved. Instead, a series of failed political coalitions have emerged, resulting in six different mayors in less than two years.

This failure of basic infrastructure poses a significant threat to the social foundation of the country, according to Professor Yunus Ballim from the University of the Witwatersrand.

As an expert in civil engineering, Ballim highlighted the dangers of poorly maintained pipes, which recently caused an underground gas explosion near Albert Street.

However, he also emphasized that the failure to provide essential services such as housing, running water, and electricity erodes the faith of South Africans in their post-apartheid democracy.

While the democracy has guaranteed freedom for all citizens and abolished pass laws, it has yet to deliver on its promise of housing and employment for millions.

Ballim raises an important question regarding the perplexing phenomenon of frustrated and impoverished protesters resorting to burning clinics or schools.

He suggests that this destructive behavior may stem from a loss of confidence in the ability of these institutions to fulfill their intended purpose.

Rivers, who is actively involved with dilapidated buildings in Johannesburg, recounts one particularly dire situation she encountered.

In this instance, a pregnant woman found herself going into labor all alone in the damp and chilly basement of a hijacked property devoid of basic amenities such as electricity and running water.

Despite the urgency of her condition, the woman adamantly refused to seek medical assistance at a hospital.

Her fear stemmed from the belief that doing so would result in the loss of her precarious living situation within the building.

Moreover, she harbored no faith that an alternative home would be available for her and her child. Consequently, Rivers painfully describes how this baby was brought into the world under the dismal circumstances of darkness and despair.