Home OpinionLuqmaan Rawat Government neglect exposed: Johannesburg’s battle against building hijacking

Government neglect exposed: Johannesburg’s battle against building hijacking

by Luqmaan Rawat
The aftermath of the Usindiso Shelter fire Photo Reuters/New Straits Times

Johannesburg – In the labyrinthine heart of Johannesburg, where ageing “skyscrapers” reach towards vast  skies, a sinister shadow looms over the cityscape. It’s the shadow cast by the malevolent spectre of “hijacked buildings”, an insidious urban plague preying upon the marginalised and forgotten. Yet, it took a harrowing, bone-chilling inferno that devoured the hijacked Usindiso Shelter, leaving 77 lives reduced to ashes, to finally reveal a grim reality haunting Johannesburg for far too long. What makes this situation even more unsettling is the government’s continuous failure to take accountability for its lack of action.

The Usindiso Shelter stands as a stark reminder of an alarming trend gripping Johannesburg—building hijackings that continue to plague the city, with no end in sight. The fire that engulfed a hijacked building in Marshalltown on Friday, September 15, serves as an ominous precursor to potential disasters on the horizon. While there were no injuries or deaths reported, it serves as a chilling testament to the inherent dangers lurking within hijacked structures. These buildings, stripped of proper maintenance and care, have become veritable death traps, poised to claim the lives of their unsuspecting occupants at any moment.


Defining “hijacked buildings” and factors leading to buildings being hijacked

To comprehensively tackle this issue, it’s imperative to delve into its roots and identify what qualifies a building as “hijacked”. According to Zenzile Mbinza, a lecturer in the department of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Johannesburg, such buildings are those seized by illegal landlords with the intent of renting them out to the urban poor. Several factors contribute to this phenomenon, with “urban succession leading to gentrification” being a key driver, as elucidated by Mbinza.

“Urban areas go through a life cycle that sees them built up, maintained, deteriorated and then renewed. It is the deterioration and renewal phases of these cycles that present urban areas with the greatest challenge. When an area goes through dilapidation, those residents that can afford to leave, do so, while those that cannot, stay. Buildings are then sold off quite cheaply and refurbished. When this happens, new tenants with considerably more money than those that are currently staying are attracted. This is gentrification. In other instances, areas are left to their own devices without any prospect of renewal. This is the opportunity for buildings to be hijacked and leased at extraordinarily low rates.”

Nonetheless, the situation isn’t uniform. On occasion, these illicit landlords employ coercion and intimidation tactics to evict lawful tenants from properties, explained David Fleminger, Chair of the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation (JHF), regarding the Usindiso Shelter.

“It is unclear when the hijackers moved in. We do know that in 2010, The Star newspaper adopted the shelter as their Mandela Day project and there are photos of volunteers repainting the rooms, etc. Sometime after that, it appears that armed hijackers moved in and literally forced Usindiso out with threats of violence. Thereafter, the hijackers started renting out space in the building, but did not pay for any services.”


The municipality may discontinue services to the building in response, either to recover debts or, more cynically, to force occupants out. Yet, residents, left without essential services like water and electricity, resort to makeshift solutions, increasing the risk of fires.


Impact on communities and urban landscapes

The hijacking of buildings has profound implications for both urban landscapes and communities. Residents living in such conditions are detached from standard city services, ignorant that their rent payments don’t contribute to these services, explained Mbinza. Moreover, when one building is hijacked, it sets off a chain reaction, forcing residents to vacate the area. With no new occupants arriving, buildings remain unoccupied, further heightening the risk of hijacking.

An ariel view of one of the hijacked buildings in Johannesburg Photo Jonathan Torgovnik/Getty Images Reportage/Time

Is the government right to blame Apartheid?

During her visit to the Usindiso Shelter fire site, Social Development Minister Lindiwe Zulu associated the tragic incident with the legacy of Apartheid and implied the government should not be held solely responsible for improving conditions over the past 30 years. Mbinza countered this excuse, emphasising it is commonly voiced during election periods and the minister is now in charge. It is no longer viable to attribute the shortcomings of our current government to Apartheid. 

“The fact of the matter is that the minister is in control now and is responsible for her portfolio. She should carry out her duties as set out in her employment contract like every other employee. The city of Johannesburg is responsible for all building stock within its jurisdiction. Should it find a building not equipped to house people, it is responsible for tracing the owners, informing them to cease and desist. From this, it is responsible to seek all avenues to find alternative accommodation for these residents and then cordon off that building.”

Similarly, Fleminger, acknowledged Apartheid’s lasting impact but argued against connecting incidents like hijacked buildings to Apartheid. These issues emerged well after the Apartheid era concluded.

“I cannot agree that the fire at 80 Albert Street is linked to Apartheid in any meaningful way. The simple truth of the matter is that the building was beneficially occupied from 1994 until after 2010. Thereafter, illegal slumlords forcibly pushed out the legal tenants and seized the building for themselves. The civic authorities did little to push back against this hijacking, even though they were well aware of the situation, and the slumlords were left to operate with impunity. So, not only were vulnerable people exploited by criminals, the building itself was allowed to deteriorate with no services or maintenance. The seeds of the fire were thus sown by the inactivity of civic authorities over the last 10-15 years – there is no direct connection to apartheid, in my opinion.”


In the case of the Usindiso Shelter, not much was done to actually reclaim the building once it was known to be hijacked. According to newspaper reports, government knew who the “slumlord behind the hijacking” was and interrogated him. However, he was released after some time.

“In general, it seems that the authorities felt the site was too dangerous and did not intervene in any meaningful way. There is also the possibility of corruption and collusion between the slumlord and city representatives but this is mere speculation at this stage. In any event, with no concrete action by the city against the ringleaders, the building remained hijacked for years.”


Apartheid’s impact on town planners and cadre deployment

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s remarks about the shortage of well-qualified professionals at the local government level, including CFOs and engineers, after the Usindiso Shelter fire were criticised. Mbinza argued  Ramaphosa’s assertions were “ill-informed” and he was “part of the problem”. Cadre deployment, a practice associated with the ANC, was cited as a major issue affecting Johannesburg and South Africa’s development.

“You cannot deal with technical issues politically. Cadre deployment is the main reason why South Africa finds itself where it is economically and developmentally. You need a capable and apt state machinery to implement the lofty ideals presented by the plethora of policies that have been introduced in South Africa. Employ the best person for the position, not your friends.”

Ramaphosa also went on to say that South Africa has a scarcity of town planners. He attributed this to Apartheid saying, “Apartheid robbed us of a plethora of town planners.” 

Having skilled town planners is an absolute necessity for the sustenance of a thriving and meticulously organised city, said Fleminger. 


Acknowledging the significant role town planners fulfil, the purported deficit of qualified town planners, as claimed by Ramaphosa, would be genuinely worrisome if it accurately reflected the reality. However, our wealthy president’s  attempts to attribute the issue of hijacked buildings to Apartheid rather than the government (his friends) are viewed by Mbinza as a distortion of the facts. Mbinza contends  South Africa boasts a substantial reservoir of proficient town planners, casting doubt on the President’s assertion that Apartheid is the primary cause. Instead, he believes Ramaphosa issued such a statement for different reasons.

“It is not for a lack of planners that South African cities are the way they are. It is simply because of a myopic way of looking at development, which is further complicated by political grandstanding in South Africa. The president’s assertions are no doubt, at least in my view, a way of opening up avenues for planners to be imported such as was the case with the Cuban doctors when there were so many trained, unemployed professionals in the country. I reiterate, it is a matter of optics wherein seeds of doubt are sowed within society. This was the point of Apartheid and it is simply being re-engineered in this context.”

According to Fleminger, the city has failed to implement sufficient measures to effectively safeguard its buildings and deter hijackings. The City of Johannesburg owns about 20 000 buildings. While that is a huge portfolio to maintain “authorities have simply not done enough to prevent criminals from hijacking vulnerable buildings and exploiting vulnerable people”.

SMread: Does the PIE Act Protect Criminals of Hijacked Buildings?


What solutions are there

Marshalltown represents merely a fraction of the numerous regions within Johannesburg grappling with the scourge of building hijackings. The JHF harbours profound apprehensions about several areas, notably highlighting the “inner city, Hillbrow, and Yeoville”. Service delivery has significantly faltered in these localities, resulting in the pervasive hijacking of numerous structures. This dire situation presents a formidable obstacle to the restoration of heritage buildings and other properties, given the escalating perilous conditions prevailing in these areas.

“This makes it almost impossible to restore and protect heritage properties in these risky areas. After all, the site must be secure before you can even think of doing any restoration. Other parts of the city are wealthier and more stable, with less risk of abandoned properties and better maintenance of buildings in general. Socio-economic factors certainly play a role in this disparity, as well as the presence of private organisations such as Residents’ Associations and security companies who have stepped in to protect their own neighbourhoods.”


Addressing building hijackings demands multifaceted solutions, explained Mbinza. While architects and urban planners play essential roles in this process, the issue goes beyond their expertise.

“The issue is not so much about opportunities in the city as it is more about optics. Cities sell dreams to a disenfranchised urban poor, to say, ‘if you can make it here (in Johannesburg for instance), you can make it anywhere’. Cities have a finite space from which they can grow. Beyond that, problems will always be encountered. So, localised urbanisation is critical as opposed to centrality, which has been the norm for cities such as Johannesburg and Cape Town. By localised urbanisation means the embedding of amenities and services found in bigger cities at a smaller scale.”

This is one of the ways to help alleviate the pressure on the city centre and disburse resources more equitably. Another way, suggested by Fleminger, to protect older buildings and heritage sites is through beneficial use.

“These are valuable structures in their own right and should be embraced as a resource to be nurtured and sustained. Once a building is abandoned, for whatever reason, it becomes vulnerable to neglect and/or illegal occupation. So, the authorities should be working on an action plan that will bring the slumlords to book and find new tenants who can restore these important structures and put them into good use.”

In the wake of the harrowing inferno that consumed the Usindiso Shelter, the egregious issue of building hijackings in Johannesburg has been laid bare, shining an unforgiving spotlight on the government’s woeful lack of accountability. It is imperative to acknowledge that while comprehending the underlying factors driving this crisis holds significance, using the spectre of Apartheid as a scapegoat in the present day is not justifiable. Ramaphosa’s assertions about the shortage of qualified professionals cannot absolve the government of its immediate duties. Furthermore, Minister Zulu’s attempts to link this tragedy to Apartheid represent yet another glaring endeavour to sidestep responsibility. To effectively tackle this pressing issue, resolute and far-reaching solutions are not optional but mandatory. These include the promotion of localised urban development and the restoration of forsaken structures. The government must cease its evasion tactics, rise to the occasion, and prioritise the safety and prosperity of Johannesburg, forsaking its habitual evasion of its obligations.

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