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TESSA DOOMS | Marshalltown fire disaster points to major governance failures on all levels

Government must deal with crimes rather than consequences

Tessa Dooms Columnist
More than 70 people have been confirmed dead after a building in Marshaltown, Johannesburg was engulfed by fire in the early hours of Thursday morning.
More than 70 people have been confirmed dead after a building in Marshaltown, Johannesburg was engulfed by fire in the early hours of Thursday morning.
Image: Thulani Mbele

The Johannesburg fire disaster in Alberts Street, Marshalltown, has placed the spotlight on many crises that governance failures cause. Make no mistake, 80 Alberts Street was not only a longstanding fire hazard, but also an overcrowded building with poor living conditions, managed by thugs who wrought tyranny over vulnerable people desperate for shelter.

The 400 people who inhabited that building were not lazy and irresponsible people unwilling to live in better conditions. The South Africans and international migrants alike were people willing to pay what they could in rent, co-exist with communities of other poor people if that is what it took to not raise their children on the streets of Johannesburg.

The greatest lesson the Johannesburg fire reminds us of is that it is the most vulnerable in our society who suffer most when governance fails. The middle income and wealthy communities in a country with a failing government can buffer themselves from its effects by privately buying the services the state fails to provide or using social capital and influence to get the state to work narrowly for them.

People who are vulnerable because of poverty, dysfunctional immigration, lack of service delivery, poor law enforcement and corruption become the targets of criminals who seem to be better organised than the government, even when illegally taking over a building literally owned by the City of Johannesburg.

There are three narratives of the fire we need to explore further if we are to understand and constructively build forward from this disaster.

First, we must debunk the idea that poor people, whether in inner-city buildings or the over 3-million families in shack dwellings across the country, prefer the indignity of poverty and unsafe living conditions.

Shelter is a basic human right, yet it is one that even the poor and vulnerable people in 80 Alberts Street were willing to pay for. If people were afforded shelter options or better yet social housing options, surely they would pay for them too.

In fact, with a thoughtful and humane plan, the city could have collected revenue rather than the bodies of people from that building it owns.

An expanding population through both natural population reproduction and migration requires a suitable housing plan rather than a haphazard disaster or criminal response.

Notwithstanding higher levels of international migration from Europe and other African countries, population growth in SA has not been unpredictably high since the dawn of democracy.

In fact, world data and Statistics SA confirm that the highest single year growth in the population in the country in the past 50 years was in 1983, with the smallest annual growth in 2017. Even the national development plan predicted 12 years ago that by 2030 the SA population would be at maximum 68-million people, which at current growth rates is predictable.

Planning for social housing for urban migration, international migration and general population growth is possible and urgent.

Second, we must point out the irrationality of the idea that migrants benefit from being undocumented. Being undocumented in any country, especially one that is not your country of origin, opens people up to being criminalised by institutions and makes one vulnerable to criminals and unethical people willing to exploit them.

A government committed to manage immigration at and within its borders must reflect on what it can do to regularise or repatriate people, rather than criminalise them on the basis of legal status alone.

Third, the hijacking of buildings is a crime. It is a crime committed by the presumed landlords who through thuggery target neglected buildings and vulnerable people. The state when conducting raids and evictions does not arrest the building occupants because even they know that the criminals are the landlords.

Yet, instead of operations to find and arrest landlords the low-hanging fruit is the eviction of occupants in haste, without following legal processes and without plans thereafter. All this while the hijackers, like drug dealers, wait for the literal dust to settle and prey on new groups of vulnerable people to place in the same buildings.

Despite all the narratives about NGOs impeding the government to act illegally, the state is not a victim of its own laws. Elected officials have options to comply with the laws, change the laws or even the constitution.

A government committed to its own constitution and willing to act within laws that its own parliament write and the president signs into law, should not only be able to respond to the obvious housing and migration crisis but plan for it.

When it comes to hijacked buildings, the government must deal with the crimes rather than the consequences. As it relates to basic human rights, it must either plan to deliver on them or denounce them openly.

Nothing that happened at 80 Alberts Street was a surprise to the government nor outside of its control.

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