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Build a response: Blame the authorities, not the homeless for the harrowing deaths in the Joburg Fire

We, the working-class movements and activists from Greater Johannesburg and South Africa, who gathered on 07 September 2023 at the Forge in Braamfontein are outraged at the circumstances under which 77 people lost their lives in the Marshalltown fire. We express our condolences and solidarity to the families and loved ones of the deceased.

This tragedy is not an accident: scores of the people died because the neglectful authorities failed to maintain the Albert Street building which housed both local people and migrants from all over South Africa and beyond.

The deaths are a direct consequence of a failure of those in power to address poverty, unemployment and the acute housing shortage experienced across the country. Over a million people in the province of Gauteng alone find themselves living in grimy informal settlements with few, if any services.

This tragedy must be laid at the doorstep of the political elite who continue to plunder state resources, through corruption and mismanagement. They have also jumped on the rising bandwagon of xenophobia we are experiencing in South Africa, blaming “undocumented migrants” for the fire.

The same politicians preside over the capitalist system that deprives the working class and poor people of the most basic housing supply and fails to meet demands for jobs, decent wages, and quality public services including education and health. These are realities that define Johannesburg and other metropolitan centres. In rural areas of South Africa and the Sub-saharan region, the situation is worse and makes the urban slums appear attractive to a vast number of migrants searching for better economic opportunities and services that are non-existent where they come from.

Members of Inner-City forums are experiencing worsening harassment by city authorities and law enforcement. What is needed, instead, is for maintenance teams to be sent in to make the buildings that have fallen into disrepair safe for the occupants. Black lives matter. The meeting also highlighted the hypocrisy of government spokespeople and associated political actors in blaming non-governmental organisations such as the Socio-Economic Rights Institute and Lawyers for Human Rights, which have been defending people’s constitutional rights against eviction.

That the problems are not confined to Gauteng but occur in every major city including Durban, Cape Town, Tshwane and other major urban centres is symptomatic of the depth and scope of the crises. It exposes the false scapegoating for what it is, a slanderous fabrication and lies. It is not just NGOs that get scapegoated. In Durban, Abahlali baseMjondolo has been battling some of these issues for years, and the only response from the ruling class politicians is a campaign of terror which has killed more than 20 activists in recent years.

We call for the greatest unity in solidarity of all progressive forces in this country to join us in condemnation of the response by the authorities in blaming the poor for the problems caused by those who are in power in society.

We seek further to build a response on the streets to resist the victim-blaming, bashing of the poor, and xenophobia we have witnessed around the fire disaster and in solidarity with all those who were affected by it, call for.

(1) An independent working-class investigation into the cause of the Albert Street tragedy, full accountability and adequate compensation for the victims and their families.

(2) Refurbishing all “occupied” buildings, and to ensure safe decent living conditions for all the occupants of these buildings in the inner cities.

(3) A massive public housing programme to build accessible decent housing for all to end homelessness.

(4) A Decent Universal Basic Income Grant and Living Wage for the Working Poor.

(5) End to harassment of the poor, migrants and informal traders, as well as support for small businesses and street traders in the urban centres.

(6) Broad unity of the working class left movements and progressive activists to build a campaign against the xenophobic and reactionary anti-working-class rhetoric going into [the] 2024 elections.

To this end we are convening a Public Mass Meeting on Saturday 09h00 the 16th of September at the Library Gardens, Johannesburg CBD, to which we are inviting every city resident, workers, traders, student and community activists, to mention only a few targeted constituencies in and around Johannesburg.

“A neighbour is a neighbour, a worker is a worker, a comrade is a comrade irrespective of where they are born.”

Please raise these issues in your organisations and send people to the meeting to build a response to and further demands together, to ensure we never again see a disaster such as [that] witnessed at Albert Street.

A working Class United shall never be defeated! Solidarity forever.

Endorsed by:

Rainbow Refuge, African Diaspora Forum, Women in Need Organisation, GIWUSA, South African Informal Traders Alliance, South African Informal Traders Forum, Abahlali Base Mjondolo, Gauteng Housing Crisis Committee, Kopanang Africa against Xenophobia, SAFTU, Right2Know, #PayTheGrants, Foundation for Human Rights, Housing Assembly, Neighbours, Lawyers for Human Rights, African Solidarity Network, Inner City Federation, Just Association, African Diaspora Workers Network, WASP, Save Our Sacred Lands, Poor Flat Dwellers Movement, Marxist Workers Party, Keep Left, Gauteng EPWP, Socialist Youth Movement, Hawkers Association, ILRIG, Extinction Rebellion, UJ Centre for Social Change.

This press statement was released by various working-class movements from the Greater Johannesburg region on 11 September 2023.

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