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“A city cannot only be about the rich. It should also accommodate migrants who in the first place wouldn’t have been in the city if their economic conditions were better.”

This was the sentiment shared by many residents at a meeting to build a collective response to the conditions of living in inner city Johannesburg. They met on Saturday at Beyers Naudé Square where they sought answers and long-term solutions to the challenges posed by ‘hijacked’ and abandoned buildings. The meeting was provoked by the recent disaster at 80 Albert street where 77 people lost their lives and scores were left homeless.

Many participants in the meeting rejected any idea that development of these buildings should be outsourced to private developers. They argued that private development cannot be the only solution as they fear only few will be accommodated as exorbitant rentals will push many out of the city and opportunities. To avoid this predicament, they want to be part and parcel of any solution planned to address the inner city housing crisis. 

“Once these buildings are in the hands of the private sector, only wealthy people will stay on while few will be developed for social housing. You can’t chase poor people out of the city. Everybody must have access to the city. To have a long-term sustainable solution, you need a developmental approach, not a policing approach where you are criminalising the poor and scapegoating foreign nationals,” says Nigel Branken of Kopanang Africa against Xenophobia.

“Since we can’t have RDP houses as in the township, the government must turn these buildings into RDP housing and give us title deeds. We can’t go anywhere. We want to stay in town. Right now the building where I’m staying in downtown Jeppestown is very uninhabitable. Toilets are not working. Walls are cracking. Paint is peeling off. It’s a very old building. At the same time criminals are harassing us as they want to hijack it. We are constantly running to courts to fight this,” says Thobile Zondo, the deputy chair of Inner City Federation.


Usindiso building where 77 people died in a fire on 31 August.

Representatives of the Socio-Economic Rights Institute (Seri) which has, according to GroundUp, been blamed by politicians for the housing crisis, also attended the meeting. Part of the multiple solutions to address the housing crisis in the inner city, they unequivocally said, is litigation when people are unlawfully evicted. “However, going to court is always the action of last resort. The law also requires people to engage. Meaningful engagement leads to viable solutions,” says Lauren Royston, director of research and advocacy at Seri.

Royston says that instead of evicting people, the city should implement some of its policies and plans, such as the inner city housing emergency plan which has been around for a very long time. This is supported by grants from the provincial government. According to Royston, the policy allows for people to be taken to emergency and alternative accommodation while the old buildings are being refurbished. In this way, there won’t be a need for hostile and unlawful evictions which often see people taken far away from the city. “It’s a very good plan and it can play a very important role. Existing abandoned buildings can be expropriated to serve this purpose,” she says. “We are engaging the city on that and there are some people within the city who are willing to engage.”

Shereza Sibanda from the Inner City Resource Centre said that adequate and proper consultation is needed to realise the dream of an inclusive city. “To have an inclusive city there must be a collaboration between various stakeholders. It cannot be one size fits all. People are here for different reasons. We’ve proposed various plans and submitted them. Together with students’ accommodation, they must also build permanent residential spaces.”

Some of the residents of Usindiso building that are homeless after the fire gutted the former women’s shelter and before that, the pass law office during apartheid.

“Build more and more houses. Researchers have shown more new people are coming to Johannesburg every year in search of economic opportunities. To build only 2,500 houses in a year where there are half a million people on the waiting list is not enough. That means it will take 200 years to overcome the backlog and acute housing shortage in Gauteng. Even if you minus the so-called illegal immigrants who are said to be burdening the system, that still won’t make be any difference,” says Mametle Sebei, the convener of the meeting and the president of the General Industries Workers Union of South Africa (Giwusa).

He remains sceptical of any efforts as long as government officials and politicians are still in cahoots with criminal syndicates in the hijacking of buildings. He doubts even the commission recently established by the premier to look into this crisis and says there is no need for another commission of inquiry as, like other inquiries, it will be used to cover up the responsibility of high-level officials and politicians in this mess. “With that said, we are going to engage this commission. Together with our partners and organisations affected, we will make a very robust submission as we believe over the years there has been a wealth of information and knowledge around this crisis.”

In her latest statement, the mayoral committee member for human settlements, Councillor Anthea Leitch says they remain committed to providing access to safe, quality housing to all South African citizens, but the city simply cannot cope with the additional demand on already buckling infrastructure presented by migrants into the metro. Leitch calls on her colleagues in provincial and national government to help the city to put in place a holistic, practical plan to either deport illegal immigrants or re-home those with valid asylum or refugee status in a more sustainable manner. “The inner city of Johannesburg remains full of potential for redevelopment and even gentrification, but this will not be possible as long as it continues to be treated as a human dumping ground,” reads her statement.