Homeless CBD residents abandoned after 'disaster of massive proportion'

The Red Ants were used to evict up to 1000 residents from Jeppestown. (Oupa Nkosi, Mail & Guardian)

The Red Ants were used to evict up to 1000 residents from Jeppestown. (Oupa Nkosi, Mail & Guardian)

“This was a disaster of massive proportion that went ignored by those with both the responsibility and resources to respond … The response of both the state and non-profit organisations with specialisation in disaster management response is disappointing,” social development organisation Bjala told the Mail & Guardian.

Residents were evicted from the building at 10 Mordaunt Street by the Red Ants last week and their possessions allegedly thrown out on to the street.

A blaze then began in the building, which spread to the neighbouring property. Some residents sustained minor injuries, Bjala said, and lost their possessions in the fire.

“Bjala is a community neighbour to this building and its people and as we watched the building burn down we, together with the local community, launched an immediate disaster response,” the organisation said.

It said the community response was “immense” with private households and community groups “cooking meals and taking them to affected families on the streets, taking families into already overcrowded homes and a feeding station was set up at Jeppe Hostel”.

No response from state
“We all imagined this would be a bridge between the incident and state or professional emergency management response … but to date response from these bodies has not been forthcoming.”

The organisation said it had been in contact with the Emergency Management Services disaster response unit and The Red Cross “trying to mobilise awareness of and a response to this crisis from Sept 29 until October 1”.

“By October 1 we realised the commitments we were hearing on the phone … were no more than political rhetoric. We are furious that at least 1 000 people were left to sleep on the streets with nothing other than that provided by kind neighbours, local businesses like Bjala and caring Joburgers.”

Building burned to ground
One evicted resident, Sindi Mhlongo, said she lost all her possessions in the fire.

“There were guys from the Red Ants … they forced us to come out. They said we must take down everything. Then the building burned down,” the 25-year-old told the M&G.

She said she was not sure how the building caught on fire, “but there are lots of exposed cables in there so maybe the Red Ants bumped those cables when they were inside”.

“I didn’t get my stuff. I lost my furniture, everything. For me it’s hard now. I don’t know what I am going to do. I am sleeping on the street at night.”

Arson investigation
The Times reported on September 30 that Warrant Officer Richard Munyai said the cause of the fire “was not known and a case of arson was being investigated”.

According to a report by the Adventist Development Development and Relief Agency, which was sent to Bjala, “once fully vacated, some members of the Red Ants remained inside the building … Shortly thereafter, while the Red Ants were still inside the building, smoke and flames were seen engulfing the entire building”

“We therefore came to the conclusion … that the fire was set up after the eviction had been enforced and used as a deterrent to discourage the people from re-occupation of the building.”

But spokesperson for the city’s emergency management services, Robert Mulaudzi, said there was no confirmation of the cause of the fire yet “but based on eye witness statements, it is alleged that the fire was caused by a group of … residents using petrol bombs”.

He denied that the city had not helped the evicted residents saying “facilitation and provision of emergency relief assistance [was given] to the affected residents”.

“Emergency relief was provided to affected families in need, others refused assistance. Assistance was also given to women and children. Stakeholder participation among city departments took place and is still ongoing.”

He did not respond to further questions about the type of assistance that was offered and the dates it was given.

Victoria John

Victoria John

Victoria studied journalism, specialising in photojournalism, at Rhodes University from 2004 to 2007. After traveling around the US and a brief stint in the UK she did a year's internship at The Independent on Saturday in Durban. She then worked as a reporter for the South African Press Association for a year before joining the Mail & Guardian as an education reporter in August 2011. Read more from Victoria John


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