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Opinion: Johannesburg’s hijacked souls

Opinion by Eleni Giokos, CNN

(CNN) — It was six years ago, but the images are seared into my memory as if it were yesterday. Peering into a dark, ramshackle structure, barely thrown together using odd shapes of wood, cardboard and cloth, in the bowels of an industrial building, I could see her bright pink dress.

Utterly incongruous with its surroundings, the frock’s glittery top shimmered in the gloom; but worry and pain was etched on its wearer’s face. This woman was pregnant and had gone into labor.

Surrounded by dirty blankets, half-empty bottles and food cartons and a bucket that doubled as a latrine, she laid back on a makeshift bed and winced.

Last week, I watched in horror as pictures from the devastating five-story building fire in Johannesburg filled my inbox and TV screen. I scanned the images to see if I recognized the structure. As the death toll rose to 76 and emergency workers told of a scene the likes of which they had never experienced, I remembered this woman and my own visit to one of the city’s so-called “hijacked” buildings.

Either abandoned by their owners or surrendered to gangs, these “hijacked” buildings typically house migrants or poverty-stricken locals in downtown Johannesburg. The first time I visited one of these buildings I was based in South Africa as a correspondent, and what I found was shocking.

It was 2017, and I was heavily pregnant with my daughter. Herman Mashaba, then mayor of Johannesburg, was accompanying us to demonstrate the scale and complexity of the housing crisis his administration faced.

The residents were a mix of impoverished locals and desperate undocumented immigrants. The mayor wanted us to see this for ourselves, he said, “for the world to know what we can do to our fellow human beings.”

The pregnant woman in the pink dress was her family’s main breadwinner, she told us. There were simply no opportunities to find work in Zimbabwe, so she had crossed the border in search of a living. She earned money begging, she explained. Then she burst into desperate tears.

Perhaps because I too was reaching the end of my pregnancy, surveying her bleak, squalid surroundings, I was overcome with empathy. “I can take you to buildings 10 times worse than this,” the mayor told me.

Earlier that day, Renney Plit, chairman at Afhco Holdings and the owner of the building, had shown us through the labyrinthine corridors created by the construction of dozens of similar structures. His empty building was overtaken by rogue landlords leaving him powerless. After a grueling court battle lasting seven years, he was unable to evict the occupants. Flanked with private security when we visited, we were met by men who were adamant we leave. Plit told them “I don’t need permission to enter my own building.”

Plywood sheets, concrete blocks, scraps of wire and broken-down cardboard boxes lashed or nailed together by any means possible had grown almost organically as these basic shelters had spread throughout the inside of what had never been a residential building. Children dashed along the corridors, which would have been completely dark without the light of our cameras.

The air was thick with dust and dirt, there was no ventilation. Wires pulsing with stolen electricity trailed all over the walls, burrowing in and out of the flimsy rooms. Many residents cooked on paraffin stoves and lit their improvised homes with candles, Plit told me. Such conditions were typical of these places, he said, but many were much, much worse. The potential for fire was achingly clear; the chances of escape in the event of one, minimal at best.

The gangs that controlled these buildings were charging residents between 600 and 1,000 rand — roughly $32 to $52 — per month. Those who chose to live there made that choice based on simple economics: with nothing else available at that price point, the alternative was either sleeping on the streets, or living far away from any possible work. As is so often the case, organized crime had inserted itself into a space where a need could be exploited. Some of the gangs were not even from South Africa, we were told.

Plit, whose company Afhco also specialized in refitting buildings for affordable living, laid out a typical dilemma: “If for example you’re a security guard, let’s say you’re earning up to [3,500 rand] per month, you can’t afford to stay in one of our (affordable) units, so what is your choice? You stay in one of these places.”

In the wake of last week’s devastating fire, Mashaba, who left office in 2019, spoke to my colleague Becky Anderson. He called the fire “culpable homicide” and spoke bitterly of his experience trying to get government support to solve the epidemic of hijacked buildings.

This tragedy has highlighted Johannesburg’s housing crisis in a country that is one of the world’s most unequal and where poverty and unemployment are rampant.

“I was the mayor of the city for three years,” Mashaba said, “and at the time, already discovered 600 of this kind of buildings, which were hijacked.”

“I managed to expropriate 154 of these buildings, offer them to the private sector to build affordable accommodation for our people. Unfortunately, I left way before the construction can start… (but) it was just a question of the private sector starting to build,” he told Anderson. He added that the government had “abandoned” the project after he left office.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has urged authorities to enforce regulations preventing the unlawful occupation of buildings and called the fire a “wake up call.”

As I watched the desperate sadness of the helpless rescue workers at the site of last week’s fire, and learned of the men, women and children who had perished there, I could not help but wonder what had become of the people I met in a similar building on that day in 2017, especially the woman in the pink dress and her then unborn child.

An ambulance had been called to take her to a hospital, but there was no way of knowing what care, as an undocumented immigrant, she might receive there.

I gave birth to my daughter the day after that visit. I would have been just a few miles away from that mother, but the gulf between us felt hopelessly unbridgeable.

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