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Deadly Johannesburg fire "a wake-up call for us" - President Ramaphosa

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa speaks to journalists at the scene where more than 70 people were killed in a building fire in Johannesburg on August 31, 2023.   -  
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South Africa

South Africa's President visited Thursday (Aug. 31) evening the site of a Johannesburg fire that killed at least 74 people, earlier in the day.

12 children, the youngest a one-year-old, lost their lives in the country's deadliest blaze in recent years.

61 injured people were transported from the deprived area of what used to be the business district to hospital.

President Cyril Ramaphosa expressed his government's shock and deep sadness.

"Early in the morning I heard about this tragic event, we are very sad as government about the passing of so many people, here in Johannesburg. This is unprecedented, Johannesburg has never had an event like this where so many people die as a result of fire in the centre of the city. So this is tragic."

Ramaphosa made the visit after cancelling a Thursday evening television address on the BRICS economic summit held in Johannesburg last week.

Thembalethu Mpahlaza, the head of forensics services in Johannesburg's Gauteng province said among the bodies that were recovered, 24 were female, 40 male male and 10 "burnt beyond recognition".

City authorities said the municipality-owned, listed building in a deprived, crime-ridden area had been turned into illegal housing after being abandoned. 

Most of those living there were foreigners, one resident claimed.

"I'm grateful to be alive, there was a lot of us running, trying to find the fire exit and a lot of people eventually died because of the smoke inhalation," said Kenny Bupe, a survivor caught up in the blaze while visiting a friend.

The 28-year-old told AFP he was in a group that managed to break open a locked fire escape gate and run to safety, while others "jumped out" of windows.

Blankets and sheets used for escape

Blankets and sheets used for escape hung from the burned-out windows, after the flames were put out.

Witnesses spoke of parents throwing their babies out into the street, hoping to save them.

"There were people catching the babies and there were also mattresses laid out for (them)," said Mac Katlego, 25, who lives across the street.

In the evening, rescuers were wrapping up search operations before handing the scene over to the police.

President Ramaphosa said authorities were working "full out" to assist those affected, adding the disaster needed to be investigated.

Affected families have been sent to shelters in and around the city. 

"It's a wakeup call for us to begin to address the situation of housing in the inner cities," Ramaphosa said.

City authorities have said the building had been turned into illegal accommodation after being abandoned.

Illegal occupation of disused buildings in Johannesburg's city centre is widespread, with many said to be under the control of criminal syndicates.

It was not immediately clear what caused the blaze. House fires are fairly common in the country, plagued by chronic power outages, where poverty and homelessness are widespread.

Authorities said candles used for lighting inside the structure or stoves and other heating devices were a likely cause.

Security gates

"Inside the building itself there was a (security) gate which was closed so people couldn't get out," said Mgcini Tshwaku, a member of the city's mayoral committee in charge of public safety.

"Many burned bodies were found stashed at that gate."

During the day, firefighters damped down hotspots as emergency services laid dead bodies under blankets on the street outside.

Paramedics assisted survivors, some looking bruised and visibly in pain.

"The scene this morning was a mess, there were bodies on the ground everywhere," said Noma Mahlalela, 41, a resident, adding most people living at the premises were foreigners.

Authorities estimated more than "80 shacks" were set up inside.

"The fire spread very quickly, affecting different levels of the building, because of the combustible materials used," said Emergency Management Services spokesman Robert Mulaudzi.

The building was raided by police in 2019, when 140 foreign nationals were arrested for illegally collecting rent, Johannesburg city manager Floyd Brink said.

"It was so difficult for us to get out," said Nobuhle Zwane, who managed to escape with her two children aged two and 13, adding that some corridors were blocked by beds. "We did inhale quite a lot of smoke."

Residents told AFP each of the five floors had a security gate that was kept locked at night to keep out police and possible intruders.

South Africa, with the continent's most industrialised economy, attracts millions of migrants, many undocumented, from other African nations.

Condolences poured in, including from the head of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

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