Open letter on the Usindiso fire tragedy

Subject: Open letter on the Usindiso fire tragedy
From: Academics in Johannesburg
Date: 4 Sep 2023

Dear editor

We, academics at Johannesburg’s universities, express heartfelt condolences to the families of 77 fellow residents of our city who died in the fire at the Usindiso Building in the city centre. We sympathise with those who were injured and those whose possessions were destroyed in this tragic event.

We hold the City of Johannesburg, which is the owner of the building, responsible for allowing it to fall into the state of dilapidation that made a disaster more likely. We condemn all those, but especially our politicians whose mandate tasks them with upholding the Constitution, who have blamed immigrants and NGOs (specifically the Socio-Economic Rights Institute) for what occurred. Civil society organisations and all our country’s residents – no matter their national origin – expect the municipality to follow our law, so that suitable accommodation is located for evicted inhabitants of ‘hijacked’ buildings, prior to their demolition or refurbishment. Attacks on foreign nationals, whatever their intention, will stimulate xenophobic violence. Our support for the enforcement of constitutional rights, including the right to life and the right to shelter (guaranteed to ‘everyone’ according to Section 26) is a defence of the very cornerstones of our democracy.

The municipality is obliged to maintain publicly-owned buildings, and ensure the security of all workers and inhabitants. The building’s heritage status and the fact that it was set aside for sheltered accommodation for vulnerable women and children, should have re-forced the City’s duty of care.

We also stand by our students, many of whom live in inner-city Johannesburg, some of whom experience xenophobia on a daily basis.

We demand that the City of Johannesburg justly compensates families of those who perished and to other residents who lived in Usindiso.

We call on all residents of our city to hold our many mayors and mayoral committee members, former and current, responsible for the decay of scores of inner-city buildings. Those implicated in ignoring the conditions that led to so many unnecessary deaths should face dismissal and prosecution for dereliction of duty.