/ 5 September 2018

#JoburgFire: ‘This is what we warned would happen’ – unions

Thousands of Johannesburg protesters march across the Mandela bridge
The fire took place on the twenty-second floor of the Gauteng department of health building. (Renata Larroyd/MG)

The fire which killed three firefighters during a blaze at the Gauteng department of health head office on Wednesday could have been prevented. This is according to labour unions which have been fighting to have the offices moved for months.

In the wake of the lethal blaze, the Public Servants Association (PSA) and the National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu) have accused the provincial government of failing to heed their warnings, that the offices in which the department is housed does not meet occupational health and safety regulations.

Addressing the media Gauteng MEC for Infrastructure Development Jacob Mamabolo confirmed that three firefighters have been confirmed dead.

The fire took place on the twenty-second floor of the building, which houses three government departments: health, human settlements and co-operative governance. Thirteen staff members have also reportedly been taken to hospital for smoke inhalation.

Footage of one firefighter plunging to his death has made the rounds on social media.

The fire comes after the unions were told just last Friday that the department would not be moving offices despite their complaints regarding the safety of the building.

In August, the unions staged a total shutdown of the building, demanding that an alternative office be chosen. At the time an urgent meeting was called involving Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi, who reportedly acknowledge that the staff member’s grievances were legitimate and that the move should be considered.

Nehawu shop steward Bhungani Mzolo told IOL following the meeting that the union was happy Motsoaledi was seemingly on the side of the unions. Mzolo said Nehawu wanted the provincial government to institute a forensic audit and investigate possible corruption that could have taken place between 2004 and 2010 when the building was first renovated.

“How could a building that was vacated to be renovated still have so many problems? We want answers,” Mzolo said.

Nehawu’s provincial deputy general secretary, Gracia Rikhotso, told the Mail & Guardian on Wednesday that at a multilateral meeting between unions, provincial government and the Gauteng health department last Friday, the union was told to their dismay that they would no longer be moving.

“We were given no valid reasons as to why the decision was taken,” Rikhotso said.

Of Wednesday’s fire Rikhotso added: “This is exactly what we cautioned management about… The fire certainly could have been prevented”

Acting general manager of the PSA Tahir Maepa said in a statement following news of the fatal blaze that the union “specifically warned that the Gauteng health head office was a hazardous environment” and that none of the government buildings in the province meets safety regulations.

“The GPG [Gauteng provincial government] did not take these warnings seriously, resulting in today’s tragedy. The PSA puts the blame directly on the GPG as it ignored warnings and neglects the maintenance of departmental buildings to a stage of total dilapidation,” Maepa said.

Maepa said that a PSA official was on the 22nd floor of the building when the evacuation call came and that there were no fire marshals to direct or assist people struggling down the stairs.

“There is no working fire alarm in the building and many people on lower floors did not know about the fire until they were alerted by people fleeing the building,” Maepa added.

Maepa said the union has instructed its attorneys to institute an urgent application to compel the department to provide a safe working environment.

Spokesperson for the provincial government Thabo Masebe told the M&G that the Gauteng department of infrastructure development has been working to seek out alternative offices.

“There have been concerns for quite some time about the state of that building,” Masebe conceded.

Masebe would not comment on the details of the building’s safety hazards.

Masebe conveyed the provincial government’s condolences to the fallen firefighters and said that, in these tragic situations, “we take home important lessons”.

“As government we really take issue with with concerns regarding the occupational health and safety of our workers,” he said.

In a statement labour federation Cosatu demanded an investigation by the department of labour into why management has failed to relocate the staff and continued to occupy the building, “even though the signs have been there and the matter had been placed in front of the leadership of the department”.

“We need those who are responsible for failing to relocate the department to face the consequences,” the statement reads.