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Residents of burnt building refuse help for fear of deportation


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Residents of burnt building refuse help for fear of deportation

Joburg Fire
Photo by Reuters

1st September 2023

By: News24Wire


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City of Johannesburg Speaker Colleen Makhubele says some of the residents who occupied the Marshalltown building that burnt down refused to go to hospital and temporary shelters for fear of the aid being a ruse to deport them. 

"We don't know how to help them. They don't want to go to the hospital to receive treatment for smoke inhalation and they don't want to leave the area to go to the temporary shelters organised by the City," she said. 


At least 74 people died and dozens others were hospitalised when the five-storey building on the corner of Albert and Delvers streets caught fire.

The cause of the blaze is under investigation. 


Makhubele said some metro buses that had been dispatched to fetch the building's occupants left empty because they refused to board them. Hardly any of them accepted the freshly prepared meals that Makhubele helped dish up.

She said she suspected that the residents, the majority of whom have been confirmed to be undocumented foreign nationals, feared being deported or arrested if they boarded the buses.

However, Makhubele assured them that the City only sought to assist them. 

News24 witnessed an attempt by one resident, a foreign national who spoke in the Malawian Chichewa language, to assure his neighbours that the bus would take them to one of three community halls identified for temporary accommodation.

Still, most refused to board the bus.

Some residents who spoke to News24 explained their reasons for refusing to leave the charred remains of their home.

One said they wanted to access the building so they could salvage whatever was left of their personal belongings.

"We are human beings. Our lives are in that building. If we leave, what are we going to do? How will we survive? We will get into the buses and then what happens after?"

Locals who witnessed residents jumping out through windows when the building was on fire told News24 that they heard screams just after midnight.

"It was sad. I could see people jumping from the fourth floor to the entrance. They had to jump as quickly as possible because other people also wanted to jump," one man said.

Xoliswa Radebe said some residents died while attempting to escape.

The first man who jumped from the roof of the building died. The second one also died. I think it was a lady, and then there was someone on the ground who told them to jump and said he would catch them. A lady jumped and he caught her.

Radebe said the horrifying cries and screams for help were embedded in her memory.

"When I close my eyes, I can still hear the screams of people crying and screaming for help."

Not far from the site of the fire, a mother searched for her daughter dejectedly.

Maphehello Thobi from Tembisa says she received a call from her 19-year-old daughter, Relebohile, who had been staying in the building for the past two months. 

"She moved here so she could be closer to work. She was working at a butchery as a cashier," Thobi said. 

Her daughter called just after 02:00, informing Thobi that the building she was staying in was on fire but she was able to jump from the roof.

"She had called me via a video call on WhatsApp, and when I asked her where her roommate was she cried. She was crying and said I should come fetch her and bring her clean clothes as all her belongings were gutted by the fire."

Thobi said she had been unable to get a hold of her daughter on the phone since.

"Her phone is off and I've walked around the entire area looking for her. I'm wondering if she's still alive," she said.

City Manager Floyd Brink told News24 that the building was inaccessible because officials would remain posted at its entrance until it is sealed off. 

He said the City was concerned that the building may not be structurally sound for occupation, adding that engineers would be on site on Friday to assess the extent of the damage. 

Brink said some residents were still looking for their loved ones, and they insisted on entering the building to search for them.

He was satisfied that authorities had removed all the bodies from the building. 

"We will not allow anyone to move into that dilapidated building. We have been combing the area and went floor by floor. I can indicate that they found bodies and body parts. There is quite a lot of work to do on the side of the pathology teams, the provincial health and Emergency Medical Services," he said.

Gauteng Premier Panyaza Lesufi announced that he would launch a committee of inquiry to probe the cause of the blaze. 


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