/ 1 September 2023

Open a commission of inquiry into Joburg inferno

Marshalltown Fire 3
At least 73 people have died and scores injured when the building they lived in burnt down

If South Africa is to live up to our code of arms moniker of “Batho Pele” (people first), then President Cyril Ramaphosa has to open a commission of inquiry into the fire in downtown Johannesburg that cost the lives of at least 73 people this week — a number that is likely to rise. 

We must avoid this disaster degenerating into a point-scoring contest between the city’s political parties about who is to blame for the catastrophe. A tragedy where children were burnt beyond recognition. 

Johannesburg is the biggest and most important economic centre for not only the country but sub-Saharan Africa. The running down of its central business district that has seen an exodus of people to neighbouring suburbs and businesses since the late 1970s requires an exhaustive investigation to uncover the rot in the city and make recommendations that are of a national interest. 

Political analysts point to the root of the dysfunction as being a governance crisis since the ANC lost control of the city in 2016, resulting in six mayors coming through the revolving door of unstable coalitions. 

There is merit in the argument, however, that this city has been creaking at the seams for much longer than that and no matter who governs this city, stopping the rot, let alone turning back the tide against building hijackers and other criminal syndicates that have infiltrated all spheres of government, requires decisive action. 

A change of political leadership will not change the fortunes of this city. In this case a commission of inquiry may be the only route to revealing the true cause of the rot and coming with recommendations to turn the tide.

We are a country accustomed to commissions of inquiry; it seems we are always on the cusp of yet another one being appointed to investigate various issues of public concern. The Marikana commission was formed in the wake of the massacre in 2012 when 34 striking mine workers were killed by the police at the Lonmin platinum mine.

What qualifies for a commission varies and we may debate the merits of beginning what are expensive undertakings given the legal costs. But, while understanding the public’s apprehension about yet another drawn-out commission such as the Zondo commission, this deathly fire warrants another. In the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire in London in 2017, which killed 72 people, an inquiry was opened to investigate the causes. 

It cannot be business as usual, with some parties following a populist line and pointing to the disaster being caused by an uncontrolled influx of foreigners, which we should expect in the weeks to come.