Skyscraper housing 1300 Gauteng government employees a 'disaster waiting to happen'

Umnotho House houses two Gauteng government departments.
Umnotho House houses two Gauteng government departments.
Image: SANDILE NDLOVU

A skyscraper housing about 1300 Gauteng government employees in Johannesburg is another “disaster waiting to happen”.

Umnotho House at 56 Eloff Street, a 34-storey structure, has leaking sewage pipes, exposed electrical cords and its basement is engulfed with a pungent sewage smell.

The building houses the departments of economic development and agriculture.

Another unsafe building, the Bank of Lisbon, which accommodated three Gauteng departments, caught fire last week and three firefighters lost their lives in the blaze.

When Sowetan visited Umnotho House on Wednesday, the paper found:

some walls in the basement parking area were wet from leaking sewage pipes, with some of the bricks already falling off;

a pungent smell in the basement, which had a few lights working;

some of the electrical wiring was exposed in most of the offices; and

electrical power plugs were not working in most parts of the building, between the 9th and the 16th floor.

It was apparently considered as an alternative building to house about 100 government employees removed from Thusanong Building, another unsafe building which was used by the provincial social development department.

Gauteng government spokesperson Thabo Masebe said: “Umnotho House is being rented by the department of economic development from a private company.”

Masebe said the department had been “given assurance” that the building complied with safety regulations.

“The department of infrastructure development will continue to engage with the owners and if there are any concerns about occupational health safety, they will be addressed urgently.”

However, some of the department workers who are members of the National Health, Education & Allied Workers Union (Nehawu) downed tools on Wednesday and staged a sit -in in the building’s reception area.

“This is obviously a disaster waiting to happen, so we didn’t want to wait until a life is lost before we act,” Nehawu branch chair at the department, Hlami Mnengwani, said. He said they demanded safety certificates from the department because the building had been a safety concern for two years now.

An employee said: “The office I am working in has no ventilation, none of the windows in our section can open and the office is just an uncomfortable space to work in.”

Added another worker: “We have security guards that are based in an unbearably smelly basement for 24 hours looking after our cars. They’re permanently breathing the sewage smell.”

Gauteng economic development MEC Lebogang Maile's spokesperson Castro Ngobese said: “The building is 100% compliant in terms of occupational safety. Any other issues related to maintenance are attended to when default arises from time to time.”

Ngobese said what happened at Bank of Lisbon building “should not be used by anyone to raise false alarm bells... Currently, we have opened doors for affected departments to use our space.”

Sowetan has also learnt that the City of Joburg had been inundated with complains about the Bank of Lisbon building since 2015. A 2015 report by the city, which Sowetan has seen, found that the building was not complying with safety regulations. Some of the findings included lack of ventilation in some areas, poor waste storage and general poor maintenance.

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