Joburg’s inner city slum is out of control

Johannesburg’s inner city has been in the international news recently for all the wrong reasons. A freakish underground methane gas blast on Lilian Ngoyi Street in the city centre in July made international news, as did the fire at the five-storey Usindiso building in Marshalltown that killed 77 people in August.

In June, a fire broke out in the Florence Nightingale building in Hillbrow, killing two children who had been locked in an apartment with no means of escape.


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Both the Usindiso and Florence Nightingale buildings had been hijacked by criminal gangs who rent out rooms to the city’s most desperate, usually for about R1 500 a month.

Incidents like the Usindiso and Florence Nightingale fires have highlighted the epidemic of building hijackings and illegal squatting in Joburg.

The areas most at risk are the CBD, Hillbrow, Berea, Jeppestown, Joubert Park, Denver, Selby and Doornfontein.

We know this because a list of the city’s most dangerous buildings has been supplied to the City of Joburg by Vermaak Marshal Wellbeloved (VMW) Inc, a firm of attorneys primarily concerned with restoring properties to their rightful owners – mostly buildings that have been either hijacked or subject to rent boycotts.

Moneyweb visited some of the worst buildings, and you can see the state of the Florence Nightingale in the picture below.

The building is marinated in trash, and has no water or electricity, yet people are still living in it.

Joburg Mayor Kabelo Gwamanda said the Florence Nightingale in Hillbrow was one of several buildings the city was seeking to reclaim from hijackers. Image: Supplied

Trash is dumped from the Florence Nightingale into a nearby alleyway. Image: Supplied

Despite the obvious health hazards of living in the Florence Nightingale, rooms are still available for R1 500 a month. Image: Supplied

One of the occupants, Sipho Dlamini, says City Power came last week to remove the transformer that supplied electricity to the building.

Looking at the state of the Florence Nightingale, and the potential fire hazard it poses, it should come as no surprise that the city has reclaimed its transformer.

Read/listen: Joburg fire: Vigilance required to prevent inner-city decay

In a recent court case filed in the Johannesburg High Court, we learned that the City of Joburg had suspended its obligations to provide temporary emergency accommodation to illegal occupiers during the Covid national state of emergency. It turns out the city has just 11 temporary emergency accommodation facilities, all of which are full, with a need for a further 1 500 beds.

‘Not squatters’

Greg Vermaak of VMW Inc explains how hundreds of property owners have been dispossessed over the last three decades.

“Twenty years ago, we saw a trend of buildings being hijacked by criminal gangs. That still continues to this day, but the schemes have become more sophisticated in recent years.

“It starts with a rent boycott, usually over a claim that the property owner is not properly maintaining the building. It’s very easy to get other occupants to sign on to a rent boycott, but what then happens is that someone else, other than the owner, starts collecting rent.

“I would say there are very few buildings in Joburg where no one is paying rent,” says Vermaak.

“They may not be paying it to the proper owner, but they are paying rent to someone, at which point the building has become hijacked.”

In cases such as this, the occupants cannot be regarded as squatters.


They have no idea who owns the building and are paying rent to whoever represents themselves as the building owner or manager.

The Constitution and various other statutes, principally the Prevention of Illegal Eviction from and Unlawful Occupation of Land (PIE) Act, make it unlawful to evict someone in dire poverty without the local municipality finding them alternative emergency accommodation.

That makes it virtually impossible to evict tenants, as most municipalities do not have alternative accommodation.

Partitioning rooms to maximise rent

To maximise the rental income, the hijackers or building ‘managers’ sub-divide rooms with hardboard partitions, and sometimes curtains, which can easily catch fire.

There is no electricity in these buildings, so the occupants use mainly paraffin for cooking and heating, and candles for light. Several of the reported fires in Joburg buildings were set off by neglected paraffin stoves or candles. Fire hydrants are repurposed for domestic water uses, and trash is left to accumulate in alleyways or streets.

The picture below shows a building in Davies Street in Doornfontein that used to be an office block but has since been turned into rental accommodation.

What was once an office block in Doornfontein is now a hijacked building where rooms have been partitioned to increase rental income. Image: Supplied

A list compiled by VMW Inc at the request of the City of Joburg identifies 17 buildings in Joburg deemed to be “very dangerous”.

They include the Florence Nightingale in Hillbrow, the St George’s Presbyterian Church in Joubert Park, the Old Nurse’s Home Hospital Hill complex in Hillbrow, the World Trade Centre in the CBD, and Metropolitan Heights in Hillbrow.

Several more buildings in Jeppestown, Doornfontein, Yeoville and Selby have been flagged as having potential safety issues.

Litigation is underway to force the city to find alternative emergency accommodation for thousands of occupants spread across these buildings, and court orders have been obtained in support of the property owners.

These court orders are however effectively sterilised by the city’s inability to find alternative accommodation.

Many of the tenants in these slums are undocumented foreigners, which requires the South African Police Service and the Department of Home Affairs to collaborate in processing them, either for documentation or deportation.

The City of Joburg may be years away from having sufficient rooms to accommodate the inner city tenants in hijacked buildings, but the recent fire at the Usindiso building in Marshalltown seems to have prompted action by city officials.

Most of these buildings are not fit for human habitation, but tenants with no other place to go are staying put until some other plan is made.

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