/ 20 July 2023

Panyaza Lesufi: Cause of Joburg blast still unknown

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Aftermath: Downtown Johannesburg was rocked by a blast that damaged the length of Bree Street. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

The cause of the explosion that tore through Johannesburg’s central business district during rush hour on Wednesday has still not been identified, Gauteng Premier Panyaza Lesufi said on Thursday.

The underground explosion, that was initially believed to be a natural gas explosion, ripped through Bree Street (Lilian Ngoyi), with the impact flinging people and vehicles into the air. One person was killed and 48 people were injured. Eight people remain in hospital, two of whom are in a critical condition. 

Speaking at a briefing, Lesufi said the identity of the deceased, who was found in the rubble beneath a taxi, is still being determined. “We have taken the fingerprints of the said individual, they are being assessed and analysed and the family members will then be notified. 

“We’ve got the fingerprints in our electronic system to track the family of the deceased. Thus far, unless otherwise, we have not received anyone reporting somebody missing.”

Detailing the first preliminary report on what had caused the explosion, Lesufi explained: “You will recall that this morning, we indicated that every institution that had anything to do with our underground network, were pulled to come and check their systems. We brought Egoli Gas and they indicated that from their side, their systems are still intact. We brought the sewer team, we brought water, we brought Telkom, we brought Sasol as well as the electricity team.”

So far, all are still insisting their systems are still intact and that the explosion does not come from their systems. 

“Subsequent to that we had brought the department of labour because it has experts who deal with these kinds of things,” Lesufi said. “The department of labour has indicated that the nature of gas when it explodes and what has happened here is similar to what happened at Yeoville, what is known as the Telkom Towers.” 

Lesufi was referring to an explosion in 2010, which was a result of a gas leak.

On this basis, three junction boxes (manholes) are of interest to the current investigations, he said. 

“The explosion came through those three manholes and the department of labour are of the view that from their preliminary report, that there are certain institutions that they want to interview further. 

“Even though they’ve given us the report, but from the department’s point of view — and also because of the similarities that they’ve observed from the Yeoville Telkom Towers explosion — they’re of the view that they need to interview those that have already deposited their reports. And we granted them that permission.”

Lesufi said the owners of the 34 vehicles that were damaged in the explosion had been tracked and their vehicles handed over to them. These include 29 minibus taxis and five private vehicles.

On the nature of the gas, Lesufi said: “Because the department of labour wants to go back and interview those that they feel needs to give us additional information, when we were ready to come here [to the briefing], the information originally was saying it was natural gas. 

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Investigators are still determining the cause of the explosion. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

“But when we received the information from the department and the manner in which they were explaining their findings, we are reluctantly refuting that statement of natural gas so that we would give them space to attend to their interviews.”

“From the preliminary report we don’t think there’s any form of [health] danger that has been recorded thus far. 

“Yes, we’ve noted there are people complaining of headaches, chest pains and some throat pains [but] we will suspend that aspect to give the department space … to indicate what kind of intervention is needed.” 

David van Wyk, chief researcher at the nonprofit Bench Marks Foundation, said rampant asset stripping, driven by poverty and inequality, worsen risks of such explosions in the inner city. 

“If you go to Park Station, which is very close to where the explosion took place, and you go and look at the railway lines, they’ve [been] stripped overnight,” he said. “One wonders as to whether we actually do have a police force. How do you do the stripping without being seen?

“If you look at the inner city, you find on the highways, for example, the railings have been stripped. If you go to Brixton cemetery, that has been stripped.

“The guys who do asset stripping have stripped electricity substations … and Johannesburg Water’s infrastructure as well.” 

Anything metallic is stripped because “it’s saleable and it puts food on the table”, which undermines infrastructure, he said. 

Van Wyk cited the gas pipelines that run past the Mooifontein dump near Riverlea. “I can take you into any of the manholes along that gas pipeline — you can go underneath and you can see the valves and everything — and if I can get in [because] there, there’s no security and so on, then any scrap metal thief can also get in there. 

“It’s only a matter of time before someone takes a blowtorch to a gas pipe and they don’t know it’s a gas pipeline and causes a major explosion.”

The reason Wednesday’s explosion wasn’t more devastating is simply because the pressure in that pipe was relatively low because few people in the inner city use gas, Van Wyk said. 

“The maintenance of the gas infrastructure really is concerning … Until the government is prepared to actually govern, and regulate as it is required to do by the Constitution, we’re going to have increasing problems similar to this one.”

On Thursday, Johannesburg mayor Kabelo Gwamanda told SAfm that any of the water, gas and electricity pipes “congesting” the city’s underground infrastructure may have caused the explosion, News24 reported

“The infrastructure underground in the inner city is congested. We have water, electricity and gas pipes, and any of those pipes, due to pressure, could have caused this kind of explosion.”

Meanwhile, Simmonds Street and Bree Street, Harrison Street and Bree Street, and Loveday Street on both sides are closed off. Bree Street and surrounds are to be closed off indefinitely.