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Another disaster waiting to happen?

Ward councillor says demolishing flats one solution

Koena Mashale Journalist
Dilapidated Vannin Court is one of many hijacked buildings in Johannesburg.
Dilapidated Vannin Court is one of many hijacked buildings in Johannesburg.
Image: Antonio Muchave

Families share one room separated by curtains and blankets.

This is how residents of Vannin Court in Hillbrow, Johannesburg, live in one of the neglected city properties that has fallen into the hands of hijackers in the CBD.

Electricity is illegally connected and occupants have to walk 1km to get water from a local church.

What is left of the fire escape route are just steel handles as the staircases have been stripped off.

The city-owned building along Pietersen Street stands opposite a school and mirrors its surroundings. Occupants said they pay between R1,200 to R1,700 in rental to slumlords who have taken over many buildings in the CBD over the years.

There are potholes in the ground, cracks on the walls and the security fence is falling apart. 

On Tuesday, as officials from the city arrived to inspect the dilapidated property, a few women sat in front of the building, some with children on their backs and laps.

All the windows of the eight-storey building are broken, with residents using either brown tape, plastic or cardboard to block the holes.

The black security gate was not being used as residents pass through the turnstiles. 

Past these gates, the main hall of the ground floor is pitch black with only a small scrape of lighting coming from down the hall.

One is immediately hit with the smell of sewage and trash, enhanced by the pile of rubbish in an open space in the middle of the building.

The rubbish is burnt weekly.

The stairs leading to the upper floors are wet and soggy and the smell of sewage grows.

The once existent lift shafts are now filled to the brim with rubbish and dirt that has been pilling up over the years, adding to the stench. 

On the third floor, there are four doors, each leading to an apartment. In one apartment, the foyer is empty and has green alcohol bottles lined up against the door. The door leading to the balcony is broken and is placed against the wall. 

One of the rooms in the apartment houses at least two families who are separated by a simple sheet or curtain hanging from wall-to-wall.

Children run across the corridors where the walls have holes and the long fading brown paint is peeling. 

Last week's fire which engulfed another hijacked building in Marshalltown, claiming the lives of more than 70 people, leaving many others injured has city officials who visited Vannin Court yesterday.

According to ward councillor Cabral Mmbengwa, the building was last inspected in 2019 when people were evicted and it was shut down by the city.

He said people simply moved back just days later.

“The council and the municipality have tried numerous times to shut down this building but each time nothing happened. Either the residents didn’t want to leave or there would be threats, it’s better to find an alternative for the residents and demolish it or else this will just happen again," he said.

“Three people have died, one died just on his way to work, robbed and killed by people who drink around here. Two more people were killed just this past week and these deaths all happened just metres from this place. These criminals run into this building and know that nothing will be done because no one wants to enter this building. These criminals would be arrested and the next day released to do what they want."

One of the residents who wanted to remain anonymous said she would leave the place and live somewhere safe but she can’t.

“Most places want payslips to make sure I can actually afford to live there but I can’t provide any of that information because I don’t work. This is the place that doesn’t care about the papers,” said the woman.

MMC for public safety Mgcini Tshwaku said residents would be evicted and accommodated in shelters.

He said the building was a fire hazard.

"One mistake here with the candles in this room divided with curtains, we will be in the same situation as Marshalltown," he said, adding that the evictions would happen by the end of the week.

“We pay rent here. They must not just take us and dump us in a place without a proper plan,” said the mother. 

Nomzamo Zondo, the executive director at Socio-economic Rights Institute of SA, said the city was conducting raids on properties even though it characterises these as inspections.

She said they have requested information pertaining to the warrants used to conduct the raids, as required by law.

“[When] you are going to search somebody’s home, you either search it with their consent or you are going to search it having provided them with a warrant,” she said.

Zondo said there were evictions from two other buildings where windows were left broken at the weekend.

“We are in the process of engaging with them [City of Joburg] and engaging with the community that has been affected. We haven’t been shown any authority for that action, what authorisation they have used. Our course of action will be determined by the authorisation that the [city] has used and what the community is saying,” she said.


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