Officials Knew of Problems at Building That Caught Fire in South Africa

No one was in the dark about what was happening at 80 Albert Street.

In January 2019, a Johannesburg city official was so shocked by what she saw during a visit — seeping sewage, a sudden influx of squatters and children in filthy clothes roaming the hallways alone — that she called for the building’s health clinic to be immediately shut down.

“I was really angry,” said Mpho Phalatse, who would go on to serve for just over a year as Johannesburg’s mayor. The building, she said, was “quite frankly, not habitable.”

Neighbors were constantly complaining about the crime spilling out of it and the slumlords who had hijacked it. It was a city-owned building that had been essentially abandoned. Residents begged police officers and firefighters for help. A 2019 report by city inspectors showed scorched outlets and melted wires in the building’s rooms, clear fire hazards, all adding up to a steady drumbeat of increasingly worrisome signs.

Shortly after 1 a.m. on Thursday, on a cool winter night in the center of what is perhaps sub-Saharan Africa’s biggest and most important commercial center, a fire broke out at 80 Albert Street. It quickly swept through the corridors and up the grimy stairs, fueled by the highly combustible makeshift barriers of cloth and cardboard that separated many rooms. As the flames spread, dozens of people, including children, found themselves trapped behind piles of garbage and locked gates.

At least 76 died, and in the days since, a clear paper trail has revealed that Johannesburg officials were well aware that the building’s 600 or so residents were in danger but did not do enough about it.

“No one chooses to live in a hijacked building,” said Brian McKechnie, a Johannesburg architect and heritage expert. “They were only there because they were desperate.”

He added: “The city failed them. The injustice of it just boggles the mind.”

It is difficult to find a more apt symbol of South Africa’s disturbing past and troubled present than 80 Albert Street, a five-story red brick building that contains so much of what has happened in this country before the end of apartheid and after.

Completed in 1954, it is an imposing quasi-Brutalist structure, a statement of power and superiority that expresses exactly what it was used for: the dreaded Pass Office.

During apartheid, Black people had to line up here and wend their way through a labyrinth of condescending and threatening clerks to get a pass to travel to white areas where the jobs were. Mtutuzeli Matshoba, a South African writer, wrote a searing short story about it, ending with how he had to undress for an owl-like white officer to get his pass.

“You held yourself together as best as you could until you vanished from their sight,” he wrote. “And you never told anybody else about it.”

After apartheid, the building briefly flourished as a women’s shelter, and articles from the time express an optimism, of poor people making the best of their circumstances as one of Africa’s greatest cities crumbled around them.

By last week, 80 Albert Street had become a home of last resort. It was a monument to squalor, with no heat besides open fires lit on the floors and little electricity or running water, with trash clogging the windows and shacks cramming the yard, where migrants from southern Africa and poor South Africans paid a few dollars a week to live under the shadow of illegal slumlords as they combed Johannesburg for jobs.

There wasn’t one problem or oversight that caused its demise, residents and others said. It wasn’t simply the failure of law enforcement to clear out the people who had commandeered the building. Or the fault of city officials who failed to move out the residents or emergency services who responded with too few rescuers.

It was all these things and more: a housing crisis, migration patterns, South Africa’s economic decline and a political evolution in which the ruling party, the African National Congress, is steadily losing its shine. The A.N.C.’s shortcomings have given rise to local coalition governments whose infighting and fast spinning carousel of leaders — Johannesburg has churned through six mayors in the past 22 months — have made it all but impossible to tackle the city’s biggest problems.

The most alarming aspect that has emerged after the fire, perhaps, is the aura of resignation. City officials speak of what happened as tragic but, at the same time, inevitable.

“I don’t think the warnings were missed,” said Mlimandlela Ndamase, the spokesman for the mayor.

He said various city agencies — the police, the housing department, the mayor’s office — knew what was happening there. It had, after all, been listed as a “problematic” building for eight years. It was raided by the police and building inspectors in October 2019.

But there were no easy solutions.

“Today you have a tragedy in this particular building. But we have another 140 buildings just like it that could come to the same fateful situation at any time, unfortunately,” Mr. Ndamase said. “It’s a reality that the city has to face.”

The fate of the building is a mirror of its environs. After the transition to majority rule in 1994, South African cities witnessed massive capital flight. Some of this was white people fearing the worst and fleeing for the suburbs. Whatever the cause, Johannesburg’s central business district slowly turned into a dystopia of tall deserted buildings and lethal, barely policed streets.

Despite all this, the women’s shelter stayed on. One woman who moved in as a teenager, Xoli Mbayimbayi, said the communal shower there “was the best thing ever.” Now 31, she said, “This was the only place I finally felt I belonged.”

In 2013, the shelter and the government quarreled over the lease, which soon ended. But many women did not want to leave, becoming easy prey for the criminals who moved in alongside the desperate mothers, piece workers and children just trying to survive.

In Johannesburg, dozens of derelict buildings in the downtown area, abandoned by the government or by landlords who have disappeared, have fallen into deep disrepair. First squatters move in, then slumlords follow, demanding protection payments.

This is exactly what happened to 80 Albert Street. According to city officials, criminals who had no right to act as landlords “invaded” in 2015.

That is the year that the long record of warnings began. First, building inspectors issued notices to the Johannesburg Property Company, the city agency in charge of city-owned buildings, and Usindiso Ministries, the nonprofit organization that was running the women’s shelter, about the deteriorating conditions at the building. Nothing changed.

Then, after another inspection in 2017, officials again ordered the nonprofit to clean up the building, but again, nothing changed. In 2018, the city’s Environmental Health Department wrote an email to the city’s property managers begging them to “please take this matter as urgency.” Eighty Albert Street, the email said, was becoming “a bad building.”

By January 2019, an inspection report struck a note of serious alarm: 60 shacks had been erected in the yard outside, stagnant water sat on the roof, doors and windows were broken and rats ran riot.

On top of that, according to the report, which was submitted to the mayor’s office and City Council, the emergency fire systems had been destroyed.

The city’s property company, and the police, “need to take control of the building and seal it off until funds are available to repair and restore the old infrastructure,” the report said.

But the building just continued to deteriorate.

Herman Mashaba, who was the mayor at the time, had launched a new multiagency task force to clean up hijacked buildings. While the problems at 80 Albert Street were “deeply concerning,” he said the lack of resources in the city made it difficult to move quickly.

“Unfortunately it was one such building out of more than 600 within the city, which was a massive challenge my administration sought to address,” he said.

He was ousted in an internal political struggle 10 months after the report was issued, and blamed subsequent administrations for not taking action.

That report, and the visit in which high-ranking city officials saw the frightening situation themselves, pushed the City Council to close the small health clinic in the building. Then in October that year, police officers and building inspectors raided the building and arrested more than 100 people, mostly on immigration violations, but they did not relocate the remaining several hundred residents.

Mr. Ndamase, the spokesman for the current mayor, said it’s very difficult to evict people in South Africa, even if the building they are living in is clearly dangerous.

He pointed to South African case law, which requires the authorities to provide alternative housing for anyone they evict. Building affordable housing was a huge promise the A.N.C. made when it came into power nearly 30 years ago. But despite the completion of more than 3 million units, there is still a dire shortage. In Johannesburg’s situation, Mr. Ndamase said, the city simply doesn’t have enough spare apartments for the thousands of people living in derelict buildings.

“If the city has to go in and shut down these buildings, then you will have over 8,000 people in the streets — kids, women, babies ­— and what are you going to do with them?” he asked.

Johannesburg’s City Council is planning a meeting on Tuesday to deal with the crisis. Colleen Makhubele, the council’s speaker, admitted that “we hadn’t put enough effort into” the housing problem.

Ominously, she added that 80 Albert Street is “not even the worst of the buildings that we have.”