/ 10 August 2023

Social justice: Hidden impact of the Johannesburg CBD gas explosion

20230720 090548
The remnants of Bree Street. (Scott Peter Smith/M&G)

On 20 July, Johannesburg’s socially varied and busiest central business district caved into what is described as a “gas explosion”, injuring 48 people and damaging the transport system that South Africa’s most marginalised communities depend on. 

Ongoing investigations into the reasons behind the neglect, underdevelopment and exclusion in the affected area, have seemingly eluded safety managers and those in positions of power responsible for maintaining reliable infrastructure in one of the city’s busiest areas. 

The consequences of these issues are unquestionably taking a toll on the affected communities, and the process of repairing and ensuring safety is expected to be lengthy, further impacting social justice

This situation reflects a major social justice challenge faced not only by those affected but also daily by people living in homesteads throughout South Africa. The social and economic disparities exacerbate the impact of the gas explosion.  

This article advocates for transformative policies that prioritise the safety and well-being of marginalised communities, aiming to bridge the gap between the urgency to attend to and fix disparities in affluent neighbourhoods compared to disadvantaged neighbourhoods.

Systematic challenges 

The gas explosion that ripped through Lilian Ngoyi Street is not only an engineering and scientific issue but also a significant social justice concern. The unequal impact on vulnerable communities, inequitable safety standards and lack of access to justice and accountability are paramount issues that have surfaced following this tragic incident.

Unequal Impact on Vulnerable Communities

The devastating blast vividly showcased the immense power behind gas-induced explosions, as evidenced by a 3D representation. 

The incident highlighted the critical need for constant monitoring and maintenance of the extensive network of underground fuel, gas, water and sewerage pipelines that crisscross the city and its surrounding regions. Of particular concern is the disproportionate impact of such explosions on vulnerable communities, especially those residing in the CBD.

Despite the destruction caused by the blast, swift action was taken to restore power cables on the affected roads. However, the incident has raised serious questions about the stability of this specific area in Johannesburg. 

The South African Institution of Civil Engineering (SAICE) infrastructure report card for 2022 gave South Africa’s public infrastructure an overall grade of D, indicating a further decline in its condition. The gas explosion has brought attention to the declining quality of infrastructure in the region, raising concerns about its stability and safety. 

Following the abolition of the Group Areas Act, the area has not received sufficient infrastructural attention to sustain it as it was before 1991. This neglect has contributed to the current state of infrastructure, amplifying worries about the area’s overall well-being and the ability to address safety issues effectively.

Inequitable Safety Standards

The incident brings to the forefront critical questions regarding the enforcement of regulations and the prioritisation of safety. This highlights the troubling lack of equitable treatment and protection for vulnerable communities in the city centre. 

An Eyewitness News interview revealed the distressing truth about the neglect and marginalisation faced by vulnerable communities. Floyd Brink’s observations of vandalism in the underground systems and the identification of an old pipe as the gas source, alongside three other isolated gas-containing pipes, underscore a dangerous disregard for the safety and security of people living in the Johannesburg CBD. 

Despite Funzi Ngobeni, the ActionSA Gauteng chair, confirming the incident as a gas pipeline explosion, the prevailing anomaly of gas pipelines placed parallel to water lines points to a clear lack of prioritisation of security measures for the city’s vulnerable community. 

Emergency services’ initial blame on underground gas pipes, contradicted by Egoli Gas claiming uninterrupted supplies, further exemplifies the apathy and neglect that perpetuates the precarious living conditions and well-being of marginalised communities. 

This tragic incident exposes the grim reality that the security and welfare of marginalised individuals are far from being a priority, perpetuating a cycle of neglect and injustice. This incident serves as a wake-up call to address these concerns and ensure the safety and well-being of all residents is equitable and fair.

Access to Justice and Accountability

Taking the matter to the Johannesburg Legislature to officially declare the incident as a local state of disaster may appear as a rushed and obligatory action aimed at avoiding pressure from local authorities and potential protests from affected communities

However, it raises concerns about whether this process adequately considers and grants access to those who have been further marginalised by the disaster. The gas explosion not only highlights the immediate need for justice but also underscores the broader issue of access to justice and accountability for marginalised communities. 

Often, these communities face significant challenges in seeking legal recourse and holding those responsible for the incident accountable. It is likely that individuals in need of medical care and owners and drivers of taxis affected by the explosion may not receive proper compensation or support to rebuild their lives after the tragedy. 

This situation further compounds the hardships faced by these communities, leaving them without the necessary means to recover and move forward. Addressing these systemic inequalities is crucial in ensuring a more equitable and just response to disasters of this nature.

The investigation into the explosion remains inconclusive regarding the specific cause, including the ignition source or the origin of the gas in the underground tunnels. 

This uncertainty sheds light on the government’s role and its apparent lack of preparedness in prioritising environmental safety, especially when it comes to anticipating the potential impact of disasters on areas that rely on small businesses to sustain economically marginalised communities. 

Gauteng, with its 16 million inhabitants, stands at a precarious precipice, facing alarming ramifications. The province’s geological instability and its vulnerability to seismic activity put it in the crosshairs of a potentially major disaster. 

This situation calls for urgent attention to address and mitigate the risks to both the environment and the well-being of its residents. Government authorities must recognise the significance of such threats and take proactive measures to protect the region and its vulnerable populations from potential calamities in the future.

The resounding call of social justice reaches far beyond reacting to disasters; it compels us to take proactive measures to protect the well-being of our communities. 

While we mourn the loss and devastation caused by the explosion, social justice urges us to work towards preventing such tragedies in the future. It speaks with an unwavering voice, urging policymakers and authorities to prioritise stringent safety standards and unwavering regulations. 

Our goal must be to avoid repeating these preventable disasters and instead create a path of safety and security for all. The resounding call of social justice reaches far beyond reacting to disasters — it compels us to take proactive measures to protect the well-being of our communities. 

Nomzamo Gondwe is a Research Associate with the 4IR and Digital Policy Research Unit at the University of Johannesburg.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.