The building that caught fire in downtown Johannesburg on Thursday morning was one of more than 600 derelict buildings in the city that are being illegally occupied — or “hijacked,” as locals say — according to Mgcini Tshwaku, the Johannesburg councilman who oversees public safety.
About 30 of the buildings are owned by the city, while the rest are privately owned, he said in an interview.
This year, Mr. Tshwaku started a program to inspect such buildings and work to get residents out because of the dangerous living conditions. City inspectors had recently visited the building where Thursday’s fire occurred, he said, and found conditions similar to those of other structures that are considered risky.
Many lack fire escapes, extinguishers and sprinklers, he said, and often have no running water, electricity or working bathrooms. Residents light fires for warmth and light, and that can easily lead to deadly fires, he said.
Preliminary evidence suggests that the fire on Thursday started on the ground floor, Mr. Tshwaku said. A security gate trapped many residents who were unable to escape, he added.
The operation to clear illegal buildings has inspected 14 of them, Mr. Tshwaku said. One challenge, he said, is that the city lacks the resources to provide alternative housing for people it evicts, as it is required to do by law.
Mr. Tshwaku said the city was trying to speak to tenants of dilapidated buildings individually to determine their needs. When residents can afford a place on their own, city officials work to help them find somewhere to go, he said, and that has helped reduce the number of people who have had to be placed into shelters or other accommodation.