Building fire leaves 73 people dead in downtown Johannesburg

A fire in a five-story building in downtown Johannesburg, left at least 73 people dead.

The blaze in the illegally occupied building, which erupted in the central business district overnight, also injured 52 people, the municipality said in a statement on Thursday. The cause of the fire is under investigation, it said.

The incident has highlighted a housing shortage in South Africa’s biggest city, an issue the authorities have failed to address. The lack of accommodation has forced many people including undocumented immigrants to rely on unscrupulous landlords who house people in the city’s abandoned buildings, often in overcrowded conditions.

There are about 100 such “neglected buildings” in Johannesburg that are being exploited by illegal cartels, said Lebogang Maile, the member of the executive council in Gauteng in charge of human settlements.

“The majority of these structures are controlled by these groups, who persistently collect rent from the occupants,” he said in remarks aired on Newzroom Afrika, a Johannesburg-based broadcaster. “We are contemplating the possibility of expropriating these structures to address the housing shortage.”

The fire comes a month after a gas explosion left one person dead, and several others injured, while also causing damage to infrastructure in the inner city.

“This is a great tragedy felt by families whose loved ones perished in this awful manner,” President Cyril Ramaphosa said in a statement. “Our hearts go out to every person affected by this event.”

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