Pope Francis told pilgrims in Saint Peter Square, “I would like to add that it was with great sorrow that I learned of the fire that broke out in a five-storey building in the city centre of Johannesburg, South Africa, in which more than seventy people died, including several children. I invite you to join me in praying for the victims. I express my condolences to the families and send a special Blessing for them and those working to provide assistance and support,” said the Holy Father.
At least 76 people died last Thursday in an inferno that engulfed a derelict building taken over by criminal gangs and cartels charging rent for space in the building. Most of those who died in the fire were desperate South Africans and some migrants described by analysts as living on the fringe of society. They are a symbol of post-apartheid South Africa’s failure to provide accommodation and social services for some of its neediest.
Bishops shocked by govt.’s uncompassionate response
A statement of the Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference (SACBC) signed by its spokesperson the Archbishop of Cape Town, Cardinal-Elect Stephen Brislin, denounced the exploitation by “slumlords who capture such buildings and who unscrupulously exploit the homeless and the poor, forcing them to live in inhumane and dangerous situations while charging them rent,” he said.
The exact cause of the fire is still to be determined. In the statement, the Catholic Bishops expressed shock at attempts to demonise migrants for the tragedy.
“We have also been deeply disturbed by some political statements that attempt to diminish the depth of the tragedy because illegal immigrants are among those killed. Those who died were people – our brothers and sisters – and to dismiss them as “illegal immigrants” perpetuates the dangerous anti-immigrant rhetoric that is being normalised. The remark by the Minister in the Presidency that “it’s not the government’s task to provide homes for undocumented immigrants” is disingenuous in its attempt to shift blame and scapegoat foreign nationals – as if some lives are less important than others. Such a cold, uncompassionate response from a senior leader in government is profoundly disturbing,” said Cardinal-Elect Stephen Brislin.
Jesuit Institute: Poor leadership leads to death
The Jesuit Institute of South Africa attributed the tragic fire to a “failure of leadership on both the local and national level.”
“While the political classes wage war on each other, greedily seeking power and control in the Johannesburg Metro, ordinary citizens’ lives are at risk. Failing infrastructure, the lack of political will to enforce the rule of law and the downright neglect of basic services are all symptomatic of self-aggrandisement, corruption, and incompetence. Poor leadership, as we have witnessed, leads to death,” said Fr Russell Pollitt, Director of the Jesuit Institute South Africa.
Fr Pollitt condemned the shocking statement by the Minister in the Presidency, Khumbudzo Ntshavheni – that it is not the government’s responsibility to provide housing for illegal immigrants. He described the statement as grandstanding.
“The South African leadership is so self-absorbed that we have become inhumane. She (the Minister) forgets how activists fleeing South Africa relied on the kindness of others to house them. Sadly, tragedies like this reveal that South Africa no longer upholds or promotes basic human rights and dignity,” he said.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa told media that the fire was the deadliest on record in central Johannesburg. He vowed to rid the city of criminals running the so-called “hijacked” buildings.