The fire that engulfed a five-story building in Johannesburg’s inner city resulted in the loss of 74 lives, including 12 children. The Johannesburg fire left over 50 others injured and prompted South African President Cyril Ramaphosa to label it a “wake-up call” for the nation.

The building was occupied by homeless individuals. The structure, originally owned by the City of Johannesburg, was later controlled by criminal cartels, making it a hub for illicit activities. The fire spread rapidly through the building, trapping many occupants inside.

Officials are working to determine the ignition source.

President Cyril Ramaphosa addressed the media from the fire site in a press conference. He stressed the urgent need for a thorough investigation to uncover the truth behind the disaster and ensure that such incidents are avoided in future.

He revealed that the building, prior to falling under cartel control, had served as a refuge for abused women and children – a fact that makes the loss even more poignant.

President Ramaphosa also revealed that after the lease for the building expired, it fell into the hands of other parties.

Abandoned buildings have become makeshift homes for families, who find themselves paying rent to criminal gangs despite the dangerous state of the structures. These buildings lack basic amenities such as running water, proper sanitation facilities, and legal electricity connections. The occupants, desperate for a place to live, hijack these buildings.

The occupants of these unfit buildings include undocumented migrants, primarily hailing from other African nations. In Johannesburg alone, an estimated 15,000 people find themselves homeless, struggling to secure stable living conditions.

Firefighters arrived on scene just 10 minutes after the fire was reported. Emergency services spokesperson Robert Mulaudzi revealed that firefighters managed to rescue some occupants. The building’s lack of proper maintenance over time led to makeshift structures and debris, complicating search and rescue efforts.

Johannesburg city manager Floyd Brink revealed that the fire had affected around 200 families. Efforts are underway to provide accommodation and support for those affected by the tragedy.

Robert Mulaudzi shared a video on the X platform (formerly known as Twitter), showing fire trucks and ambulances parked outside the building, its windows charred by the flames. Photographs from the scene captured covered bodies arranged near the burned building.

Johannesburg Mayor Kabelo Gwamanda revealed a comprehensive strategy to deal with similar hijacked buildings, aiming to convert them into social housing units. This approach seeks to address the housing crisis while ensuring that the transition is carried out with empathy and respect for the residents involved. The mayor stressed the importance of avoiding brute force and instead opting for a strategy that respects the dignity and rights of all individuals.

Meanwhile, a trend emerged on social media as online xenophobic attacks targeted at victims and survivors. Many South Africans swiftly condemned these attacks.