The Social Impact Team at Norton Rose Fulbright were approached on 20 September 2023 to represent at the Khampepe Commission of Inquiry the residents of the Usindiso Building in Marshalltown after the fire that occurred on 31 August 2023.

We met with representatives of the residents on 23 September. We spent five hours consulting with the representatives of the residents as they told how they came to be living in the building, what the conditions were like prior to the fire, the events of the night of the fire and what has happened since.

From 26 September to 9 November 2023 we consulted with approximately 340 of the victims. The first week was spent at our offices in Sandton, where we received assistance from legal and non-legal staff in the office to make sure that our consultations were completed.

We then moved the consultations to the FNB building on the Witwatersrand University campus to conduct the rest of our consultations with the assistance of members of the public, interns from ProBono.Org and the Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS).

The interns were wonderful as they arrived early every morning, eager to assist and consult with the clients. The venue was perfect, because it was closer to the inner city, which was more convenient for the clients than having to travel to Sandton.

With the assistance of ProBono.Org we received donations of cooked meals, tea, coffee and biscuits from an organisation called Ashrafulaid. This was much appreciated as it was often the only meal the clients received during the day. We believe that this also assisted in giving them a sense of dignity and respect as they had the difficult task of recalling the traumatic events of the night of the fire and watching their loved ones die.

The mammoth task of possibly consulting with up to 500 victims of the fire was turned into a manageable task due to the assistance we received from ProBono.Org, CALS and Ashrafulaid. In the first week of our consultations in Sandton, we consulted with 100 clients. At the FNB building, with the help of between 15 to 20 volunteers a day, we were able to consult with 240 clients.

On 15 November 2023, we received frantic calls from some of our clients staying at the Holfland Community Centre in Bezuidenhout Valley. We were informed that representatives from the City of Johannesburg, JMPD, SAPS and the Department of Home Affairs had arrived to ‘evict’ our clients from the shelter, as it had been earmarked as a voter registration centre. Our clients were rounded up, the South Africans transported to Denver Shalazile informal settlement and the foreign nationals were arrested and detained at the Jeppe Police Station.

On 16 November 2023, representatives from our office went to the Jeppe Police Station to consult with our clients and were met with resistance. Our clients were transported to Johannesburg Central Magistrates Court and brought before Senior Magistrate du Plessis for him to make an order in terms of Section 34 of the Immigration Act, declaring our clients deportable for not being in possession of documentation.

We requested that proceedings be stayed until 17 November 2023, as we were launching an urgent interdict application in the Johannesburg High Court, and if we were successful the Department of Home Affairs would be interdicted from deporting our clients because, as victims of the fire, they were valuable witnesses in the Khampepe Commission of Inquiry.

On 20 November the Magistrate found that our clients were deportable and should be deported within 30-days of the judgment, as prescribed by the Immigration Act. The urgent application was heard before the Honourable Dosio J on 23 November 2023. In the meantime, the 32 who had appeared before the Magistrate were transported to the Lindela Repatriation Centre. During the urgent application the City of Johannesburg entered into a settlement agreement with the
residents to improve the conditions at the Denver informal settlement. The matter proceeded on the issue of the detention and deportation of those held at Lindela and judgment was reserved.

On 7 December 2023 we received the judgement in the urgent application and our clients succeeded. The Department of Home Affairs was interdicted from deporting our clients until the Commission of Inquiry had made its findings. Th settlement agreement between our clients and the City of Johannesburg was made an order of court.

One must ask the question though – where are our clients now? Those at Denver face many challenges. Many of our clients have not been allocated one of the temporary shacks. The shacks were built on a parking lot, at the bottom of a slope, so during the summer rains there has been severe flooding. There is no longer security at the informal settlement and others desperate for shelter or who want to use the shelter for their own purposes are forcing their way in.

Those at Lindela remain in limbo and often complain about the inhabitable conditions. They are forced to live
in overcrowded rooms, are feasted on by bed bugs, they are having difficulty accessing medical attention and are only provided two meagre meals a day.

Our team has dedicated its time and energy to assisting the victims of the Usindiso fire through legal representation at the Commission of Inquiry and in our Courts. We are grateful for the assistance of ProBono.Org, CALS and other legal entities, civil organisations and groups for their support and help.

We have become usindiso wabantu – the help of those in the aftermath of the fire that occurred on 31 August 2023.
The Commission of Enquiry gave all parties the opportunity to make oral closing submissions which was to highlight the written submissions that were filed on 28 March 2024.

All parties addressed the Commission, which included SERI, the Johannesburg Fire Victims Support Group, the City of Joburg and the evidence leaders. The Commission will now deliberate and will provide recommendations at the end of April .

For more information on COVID-19 and government regulation: Click here