The weekly columns of the late newspaper editor, Ken Owen, were described by author Mark Gevisser as “bilious and brilliant”.
As a frequent target of the lacerating views of Owen, I felt the lash of the former while acknowledging the latter as well.
In Business Day on April 23 1990, Owen’s weekly bucket of national misery was headlined, “A refusal to mourn a child’s death by fire in Natal”. In equal measures, it ladled out Gevisser’s truth.
Owen wrote: “Welsh poet Dylan Thomas refused to mourn the death of a child by fire in London. After the first death, he said, there is no other. But even he might have cried out against the necklace murder of a child, a girl of nine, in Natal (KwaZulu-Natal) last week.
“Almost five years have passed since Maki Skhosana was burned to death before television cameras in Duduza … prompting then-Bishop Desmond Tutu to threaten to emigrate if such horrible things continued; since then, more than 400 people have been necklaced, and Archbishop Tutu no longer cries so passionately.
“Like the rest of us, one assumes, he has suffered the blunting of sensibility which marks the initial stages of the slide towards the heart of darkness. Our moral senses, like our public institutions, have been profoundly corrupted, both by apartheid and the struggle against apartheid.”
In the early hours of last Thursday, at 80 Albert Street, Johannesburg, a fire ravaged the infamous building (once the processing centre of the pass law system, an essential pillar of apartheid and latterly best described as “a vertical slum”) killing at least 77 people, including 12 children.
On Monday, some 33 years after Owen “refused to mourn a child’s death by fire in Natal” one can hazard how he might have responded to the immolation of 12 children in the inferno that ravaged the building owned, abandoned, neglected and corrupted by the City of Johannesburg.
In Business Day on Monday, a former executive director of the Johannesburg Development Agency, and a planning expert, Yael Bethlehem, wrote: “We have a political leadership that seems to treat the city like a game show. Many of the leaders are not concerned whether their latest political alliance will have the skills to run the city. They are only concerned with power.”
Cyril Ramaphosa blames apartheid — along with his colleagues who by rote repeat the same fraying script and thereby excuse themselves from accountability and consequence — for the dearth of planners in municipal administrations; he might do better to inquire why experts like Bethlehem migrated from the city’s employ more than a decade back.
But of the game show element, and with this terrible tragedy and the smoking building as a backdrop, there was no shortage of rebarbative political contestants jostling for space on television the day after the blaze. Ambulance chasers chasing a macabre sound bite and 15 seconds of fame.
And they certainly dressed the part. The speaker of the Johannesburg city council, Colleen Makhubele, with a mandate from 2,2297 voters, or 0.25% of the voters in 2019, arrived dressed for a day at the races. Her self-description as “the people’s speaker” (pity about the 99.75% who do not so view her) was first out of the starting blocks with blame deflection. She advised the media that it was “NGOs who make it difficult for the city to tackle the issue of ‘unsafe, hijacked buildings’ because they prevent evictions”.
One still awaits a proper explanation of another dystopian tragedy in the same CBD, the gas leak explosion in nearby Bree Street in July this year, and what remedial steps, if any, have been taken since. Perhaps NGOs were to blame too.
Actually, as the paper trail reveals, whatever role NGOs or even the courts who stymie evictions, played in this tragedy — a matter of disputation — the real villain of the piece is the city administration. For eight years, 80 Albert Street had been listed as “a problematic building” invaded by rent racketeering criminals since 2015. The city did not act with speed and firmness to take back its own building, and some of the 140 similarly “hijacked” structures tell their own story of neglect, buck-passing and utter disinterest.
According to the New York Times, whose saturation front page coverage of the blaze and its aftermath considerably exceeded its generous coverage the week before the Brics summit, the warnings the city received from its own officials were simply ignored.
“By January 2019, an inspection report struck a note of serious alarm: 60 shacks, had been erected in the yard outside, stagnant water sat on the roof, doors and windows were broken and rats ran riot … The city’s property company, and the police, ‘need to take control of the building and seal it off until the funds are available to repair and restore the infrastructure’.”
The city, which prefers playing Game of Thrones to serious governance, meanwhile cycled through six mayors since then and only the deaths of over 70 people forced the premier of the province, another performative ambulance chaser of note, Panyaza Lesufi, to announce that the doors to the building will be sealed and a committee appointed to investigate.
I suppose it beats blaming the victims for their own immolation, which was the first reaction of the minister in the presidency, Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, who announced that “the majority of the people who stay and reside in hijacked buildings are not South African and they are not in the country legally and the government cannot provide housing for illegal immigrants”.
So much for ubuntu and Pan Africanism and the other stupefying doses of “aural Valium” that populate the utterances of her government.
Next at the scene of the disaster, and doubtless seeking a respite from the multiple scandals in which she stars in her department of social development, was Lindiwe Zulu.
Wearing a hat decked in ANC colours, she stuck to the script that apartheid was to blame, suggesting that instead of looking back over 29 years of uninterrupted power nationally and 26 years of interrupted power in Johannesburg (which it governs in a coalition) political problem solving and accountability only runs until 1994 and not since.
Her ministerial colleague, transport minister Sindisiwe Chikunga, also decided the spectre of apartheid was a handy alibi for the collapse of the rail infrastructure. Inconveniently, the opposition pointed out that in 2013 there were 49.2-million rail passengers compared with 3.2 million in 2023, a vertiginous collapse not just entirely on the ANC’s watch but for the most part under the setting sun of the Ramaphosa new dawn administration. Her own ignorance of her responsibilities is worn as a badge of honour.
Do we, as per Dylan Thomas refracted by Ken Owen, “refuse to mourn” the deaths of the 12 children last week? Because our “moral senses, like our public institutions have been corrupted” though in this case not by apartheid or the struggle against it. But by the successor administration. Its moral claims and commitments in 1994 aroused international acclaim and local hopes. But the pitiless neglect of its core governance functions and infrastructure and blame deflection runs across the length and breadth of our cities and the national landscape. Like our currency, it has debased its own commitments and values.
And with another estimated 140 downtown Johannesburg buildings in similar or worse condition than 80 Albert Street, mourning needs to give way to anger resolution and change.
As Adam Smith reminded his interlocutor in 1777 after being told that the surrender of British troops to American rebels in New York marked the “ruin of the nation”: “Young man, there is a great deal of ruin in a nation.”