/ 1 September 2023

Death stalked 80 Albert Street in downtown Joburg

Photo by Umamah Bakharia

Back in the first decade of the new century a crèche was run in the Kennedy Road shack settlement in Durban. The children often drew images of fire when given crayons and paper. In their drawings the fires were huge, a red tsunami, and their families and homes tiny. 

Shack fires move with a terrifying velocity, triggering sudden balls of flame as gas canisters explode. When the ashes cool it is children and the old whose bodies are most often found under the corrugated iron panels greyed and twisted by the heat. People with very little lose everything, often more than once.

The risk that a flame lit for heat or light may rush into a wild malevolent force is calibrated by class. The more one must rely on a candle, the closer that candle must sit to flammable material, the more flammable the materials from which one’s home is constructed, and the closer one’s home is to other homes, the more likely it is to be consumed by fire. Knocking over a candle in a cramped shack made of cardboard and wooden pallets is not the same thing as knocking over a lamp in an expansive house made of bricks.

We all live a possible moment away from death or disaster. That is part of what it means to be alive. But for some of us that risk is massively larger than for others. Death sits, waiting, at the point where race and class intersect. 

Those of us who are least at risk are most protected by our money and our standing in the eyes of the state. Those of us who are most at risk are largely abandoned by the state when it comes to ensuring safety and dignity. The most vulnerable are also the most likely to be met with violence when trying to affirm the need for even the most basic support from the state. The state is often more interested in burning tyres than it is in burning homes. It regularly kills people on street protests. In parts of the country activists are at constant risk of assassination.

Grenfell Tower

Seventy-two lives were consumed by fire when Grenfell Tower burnt in London in the summer of 2017. Many were migrants, many were African and Arab, many were Muslim. They were all poor. There had not been a fire this devastating in England since World War II. 

There was a reason for this. In the hands of rising right-wing hostility to migrants, to people raced into lesser standing and to the poor, England had become as much the name of a war as a country. This was no different to the United States, or France, or a host of other countries. The Mediterranean was no longer just an ocean. The Rio Grande was no longer just a river. They were sites of state murder.

Grenfell Tower had been cladded to make it a little easier on the eye for its wealthy neighbours. The material was well known to be dangerously combustible, but was chosen because it was cheap, because some people’s lives are deemed cheap, because some people can be left to burn.

Those who prosper while others suffer tend to be confident of their virtue. They tend to blame those who suffer for their suffering: they suffer because they are criminal, stupid, ignorant, weak, drunk, lazy, dirty, foreign. 

Those who prosper often hallucinate malevolent elite actors who lead people astray, people who would otherwise remain quiescent. There is a relentless tendency to divide the oppressed into deserving and undeserving groups. The deserving poor know their place. They prefer to learn beading and to contribute to NGO saving schemes than to occupy land, burn tires or live in communities with migrants. 

The rich indulge in lurid fantasies about the poor. When, just like the white people falling out of the middle classes in the United States, poor black people in South Africa turn to opiates, in this case heroin, to dull their pain our newspapers relentlessly tell us that they are consuming a concoction of antiretrovirals, rat poison and powder extracted from stolen plasma televisions. 

Wealth and impoverishment are generated from the same equation. For the political projects that work to defend wealth and contain the impoverished it is imperative that this equation must be masked. The oppressed must be divided, preferably turned against each other. 

The idea that one is poor because one’s neighbour is Mexican, Zimbabwean, Muslim or Polish is plainly ridiculous yet the likes of Donald Trump, Narendra Modi and Priti Patel squat, like smug toads, shitting on the most vulnerable, shitting on logic, shitting on the idea of solidarity. Many of our politicians are no better. As rats gnawed at human waste in hospital drains Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi informed us that the problem was migrants and not the mixture of austerity, corruption, abandonment and contempt spun into a tightening vortex by the ANC.

80 Albert Street

Now 80 Albert Street has burnt. At least 73 lives have been taken by the smoke and flame, taken in what must have been absolute terror. As with the massacre at Marikana the ordinary flow of time has been dramatically interrupted and there will be a before and an after. We are so brutalised that we require death at significant scale before we stop what we were doing and take a moment to realise what is going on. 

The image of the bodies lined up on the street is a statement of who we are. This is not all that we are, but it is part of who and what we are. So too is the obsession, some of it sickeningly exultant, with the rendering of the people who lived at 80 Albert Street as “foreign nationals” and “illegal immigrants”. And so too is the rush to present the pro bono lawyers who take their instruction from the poor as the real problem. As repulsive as they are, the politicians like Gayton McKenzie who herald more state violence — evictions and “mass deportations” — as the solution are no unique perversion. The idea that the poor are really criminal and that impoverishment should be met with violence is pervasive. It too is part of who we are.

Meeting impoverishment with violence only moves it around, inflicting more trauma and making the poor destitute. Just as there is nowhere better for a person living in a shack to go when the state sends in the men with guns there is nowhere better for a person living in a rotting building in downtown Johannesburg to go when the day of guns, dogs and teargas arrives. People only live in desperate circumstances because they are desperate. 

At least 73 people have been consumed in a fire, the horrors of which are beyond imagination, because they were abandoned, because they were treated as less than fully human, as disposable, as fungible, as waste.

Marikana. 80 Albert Street. Whether through repression or abandonment, bullets or fire, the death of those whose humanity is denied claws at our humanity. The only viable way forward is to affirm the humanity of all. 

Richard Pithouse writes about politics, music and poetry.