/ 29 January 2024

Commission of Inquiry continues to hear testimonies of Usindiso fire that killed 77

Marshalltown Fire1
The five-storey building that caught fire and claimed the lives of 77 people in Marshalltown was leased to the provincial development department for a shelter for abused women and children before it was “hijacked”

The commission of inquiry into the fire that consumed the Usindiso building in central Johannesburg last August resumed its hearings on Monday, days after a witness testified to starting the blaze that killed 77 people.

During a hearing on the fire last week, Sithembiso Mdlalose, broke down and said he started the fire while trying to burn the body of a person he had murdered, not realising that it would spread through the five-storey building.

Mdlalose appeared in court on Thursday to face 76 charges of premeditated murder, 86 counts of attempted murder and one count of arson.

After his court appearance, his lawyer Dumisani Mabunda said the confessions made by his client, including to the National Prosecuting Authority, were made voluntarily but did not constitute guilt.

“All we can say is that we are going to cooperate with the state. What is of paramount importance for now is the safety of our client. Whether he is going to plead guilty or not will depend on my consultations with him and obviously based on further investigations on the matter,” Mabunda told journalists outside court

He said his client’s life was at risk because of the confessions he had made. “A lot of people died here, and under normal circumstances, family members are aggrieved, and obviously, there are people that are not happy.”

The case was postponed to next Thursday for Mdlalose’s residential address to be verified and to set a date for a bail application.

In his testimony at the inquiry last week, Mdlalose said he was under the influence of crystal meth which he had obtained from “the boss” in the Usindiso building when he started the fire.

This week’s inquiry sitting will hear from other witnesses.

“Each floor had a distinct story to tell both of life in the building and also how their position in the building affected their escape on the night of the fire,” a Johannesburg fire victims support group submitted during Monday’s hearing.

The group said 340 written statements from victims have been collected while 15 witnesses will appear before the inquiry to testify.

At the time of the incident, 248 people agreed to be relocated to various shelters provided by the City of Johannesburg, but many foreigners refused to move to these shelters for fear of being deported.

In the scramble to vacate the building during the fire, many survivors left their belongings inside. When these residents returned to the building after the fire was extinguished, their belongings had been looted, including identity documents, passports and handbags.The Usindiso building was used as a women and child shelter before it was hijacked.