Johannesburg’s Central Business District is filled with buildings that look on the brink of collapse. Windows are boarded up and walls are covered in graffiti.
Streets are filled with detritus – food wrappers, empty beer bottles, cigarette butts – and a foul smell of rotten food combined with urine fills the air.
It is overcrowded, dangerous, and there are few working amenities.
And it is now the backdrop to one of South Africa’s worst building disasters, when 76 people died and dozens more were injured in a fire that ripped through 80 Albert Street on Thursday.
The dilapidated complex was one of dozens that have been “hijacked” – taken over by criminals and property gangs who then rent out the space illegally to people who cannot afford anything else. There are often no reliable amenities, nor sanitation.
At least one person jumped to their death, said Thando le Nkosi Manzini, a student who saw the fire from the street. “I saw a guy jumping from the fourth floor,” he told Reuters.
The municipal government said at least 73 people had died and 43 been injured in the blaze. Johannesburg officials initially suggested the building had been occupied by squatters.
City Mayor Kabelo Gwamanda told reporters the municipality had leased it to a charity for displaced women but that it had “ended up serving a different purpose,” without giving further details.
Lebogang Isaac Maile, the head of the Human Settlements department for Gauteng province, which includes Johannesburg, said some of those burned to death may have been renting from criminal gangs illegally collecting rent.
“There are cartels who prey on who are vulnerable people. Because some of these buildings, if not most of them, are actually in the hands of those cartels who collect rental from the people,” he told reporters.
A sign at the entrance to the block identified it as a heritage building from South Africa’s apartheid past, where Black South Africans came to collect their “dompass” — documents that would enable them to work in white-owned areas of the city.
Johannesburg remains one of the world’s most unequal cities with widespread poverty, joblessness and a housing crisis. It has about 15,000 homeless people, according to the Gauteng government.
Household fires are common in Johannesburg, especially in poor areas. One of the poorest townships, Alexandra, has seen hundreds of homes razed in several fires over the past five years.
The city suffers from chronic power shortages during which many resort to candles for light and wood fires for heat.
Authorities said the cause of the fire was still under investigation.
Maile said the fire “demonstrates a chronic problem of housing in our province, as we’ve previously said that there’s at least 1.2 million people who need housing.”