/ 7 September 2023

62 Joburg fire corpses still unidentified

Photo by Umamah Bakharia

The bodies of 62 people who died during last week’s inner city fire in Marshalltown, Johannesburg, are yet to be identified, according to the Gauteng health department. 

Only 15 corpses, including three people who died in hospital, have thus far been identified, department spokesperson Motalatale Modiba said.

The remains of the victims of the fire, which tore through a hijacked, city-owned building on the corner of Delvers and Albert streets, are at the mortuary of the Diepkloof Forensic Pathology Services. 

The South African Police Service (SAPS) Victim Identification Centre unit has confirmed it is liaising with family members to process DNA samples of the victims.   

“[We have been doing] antemortem swabbing from the immediate family members [and] once the samples are taken from the deceased and the family members, they will be cross referenced to match them as part of linking families with their deceased loved one,” Modiba said. 

A mass burial for seven identified victims, including a baby, took place at the Olifantsvlei cemetery on Sunday evening. The seven were from Malawi and, according to family members, had come to Johannesburg in search of “a better life”. 

“We have so far buried a few people and we expect to bury more soon, after families go to identify the bodies. It is a very sad time for [the community] but we are keeping them in our prayers,” said Abdullah Hassan Bonomali, a Malawian national living in Johannesburg.

The five-storey building housed about 200 families. Seventy-seven residents were killed and dozens injured when the blaze tore through the property in the early hours of the morning. 

According to officials, illegal connections caused the fire, but forensic investigator Calvin Rafadi this week told the Mail & Guardian that he believed something more nefarious triggered the blaze, possibly in an effort to clear the building of its illegal occupants. 

Survivors housed at the Impilo Shelter said they were still trying to come to terms with what happened.  

“We are lucky that the side of the building that we were staying in was not burning, so me and my husband escaped. But I saw many of my friends in the building jump to [their] death and some of them, the smoke was too much, so they just fell inside,” said Nosipho Masondo, who lived on the fourth floor. 

Originally from Limpopo, Cikizwa Rigala had been living on the first floor of the building for two years. She jumped from her window to escape the flames.  

“We could not take anything. We heard people screaming ‘fire’ so we just ran. I was able to jump from my bedroom window. Many others did not survive when they jumped from other floors,” she said. 

On Monday, Gauteng Premier Panyaza Lesufi announced that retired constitutional court judge Sisi Khampepe would chair a commission of inquiry into the fire. Khampepe will be assisted by advocate Thulani Makhubela and former Ekurhuleni councillor, Vuyelwa Mathilda Mabena.

“The Gauteng government seeks a comprehensive overhaul of the underlying issues that put the lives of the province’s residents in danger, and the commission is the initial step in achieving this objective,” he said.

On Wednesday, city officials started raiding buildings that have been hijacked in an effort to curb illegal occupation.