The Citizen (KZN)

City blamed for Usindiso fire

- Zanele Mbengo

City of Joburg’s Group Forensics and Investigat­ion Services (GFIS) should take part responsibi­lity for the fire that engulfed a hijacked building last year, killing 76 people, evidence leader Advocate Ishmael Semenya told the Commission of Inquiry into Usindiso Building yesterday.

This was after Trevor Ramulumisi, deputy director at GFIS’ Property Investigat­ions and Compliance revealed that the department received a complaint about the hijacking of the building on 8 August 2019.

Ramulumisi said the function of GFIS was to ensure property around the city complied with relevant bylaws. He said they went to the building in 2019. “One of the steps we took was to go to the building and we obtained statements from the tenants.

“The statements confirmed there was someone collecting rent money and that person was not the owner, especially in this case since the owner was the City of Joburg,” he said.

“Fortunate enough, the two people accused of collecting rent were there and were arrested... When we were doing this special operation, we worked with SA Police Service (Saps) and the Joburg Metro Police Department [JMPD].”

Semenya told Ramulumisi that GFIS must have realised in 2019, during their visit at Usindiso, that the fire safety by-laws were all broken.

“Even lay observatio­n would have told you the building is not compliant with fire safety and that you knew in 2019,” said Semenya.

“Lay observatio­n would have also told you the building was not compliant with electrical safety. There were indication­s that this building was not fit for human habitation.

“What I find perplexing is that, with all of that said, it was enough for GFIS to get a report that the matter has been withdrawn.”

Ramulumisi said at the time they were investigat­ing “alleged hijacking” and they focused on that.

“The directorat­e over which you preside is compliance. In fact, you would have known the building was non-compliant in all sorts of manners.

“It was non-compliant in 2019, until the fire in 2023. To the extent that GFIS, responsibl­e for enforcing by-laws that it didn’t do, must take part responsibi­lity,” said Semenya.

Ramulumisi argued he did not think GFIS should take part responsibi­lity for what happened.

“For us to proceed with criminal cases, we have an A1 statement from the department responsibl­e for owning the building. The Joburg Property Company [JPC] was in the process of evicting illegal occupants,” he said.

“There was no way we could take legal action because there was no relationsh­ip between the owner and the occupants, and this because the property was illegally invaded.”

Semenya questioned whether GFIS went back to the Saps to question why the matter was withdrawn.

Ramulumisi said that was the responsibi­lity of criminal persecutio­n and legal services.

He said GFIS didn’t file a fire safety non-compliance correspond­ence regarding the building with the Joburg Emergency Medical Services.

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