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South Africa’s Deadly Housing Crisis

The recent fire that claimed the lives of more than 70 people in Johannesburg underscores the city’s severe housing crisis and the proliferation of hazardous makeshift settlements. Unless the authorities provide low-income residents with safe, affordable housing, similar tragedies are bound to recur.

JOHANNESBURG – In late August, a devastating fire in a dilapidated apartment building in Johannesburg claimed the lives of 77 people. The fire, one of the deadliest in South Africa’s history, was a stark reminder of the substandard living conditions faced by the city’s most vulnerable residents and underscored the country’s urban housing crisis.

Built in the 1950s, the five-story building at 80 Albert Street originally served as a “pass office,” a checkpoint for regulating the movement of Black people during apartheid. It was later turned into a shelter for abused women and children, before municipal authorities ultimately abandoned it. Subsequently, it morphed into a makeshift settlement housing migrants and people living in poverty. Its occupants endured precarious living conditions, frequent police raids, and no access to basic services, a common predicament among the city’s impoverished residents.

Sadly, this was not the first time that people have died in Johannesburg due to substandard housing conditions. In 2017, a fire in the downtown Cape York building took the lives of seven people. The following year, three children were killed in the inner-city suburb of Doornfontein when a wall collapsed on them. And in 2021, a fire near Johannesburg’s central business district resulted in nine fatalities.