The fire in the Bank of Lisbon building which housed the Gauteng departments of health, human settlements, and cooperative government and traditional affairs broke out on the 23rd floor on Wednesday in Johannesburg.
In a briefing outside the building on Wednesday afternoon, Infrastructure Development MEC Jacob Mamabolo said his department had commissioned an assessment of various buildings around the city in 2017 for occupational health and safety. The report which was presented on August 27, 2018, had revealed that the Bank of Lisbon building was only 21% compliant with occupational health and safety standards, against the norm of 85%.
He also said that the process of waiting for departments to report safety concerns to the infrastructure and development department was “no longer working”.
“We want to be the only authority that can determine whether a building must be relocated or not and where they say there is no budget, we will have to work with Treasury,” Mamabolo said.
Investigations into what caused the blaze would be undertaken, although there have been suspicions that an electrical fault could be to blame.
“At this point, we are not aware of what the causes of the fire are. The City of Johannesburg, working together with us, will conduct an investigation and I would like to appeal to everybody to not speculate,” Mamabolo said.
But Mamabolo believes that the media and the public can’t speculate that that was the case of the fire.
“You must remember, a fire can be caused even in the best of buildings. We cannot speculate on the cause of the fire. We must wait on a report,” Mamabolo said.
“It would be sad to create an impression that this fire could have been avoided. If it was arson, we wouldn’t have known. If a person plugged a device into the wall and caused a fire we would not have known,” Mamabolo added.
All government officials were safely evacuated after the fire broke out on the 23rd floor. However, 13 employees, as well as eight firefighters were taken to hospital to be treated for smoke inhalation.
“The building simply does not comply with safety and health regulations. Government officials will stay at home until there is a safe building to relocate them to,” Mamabolo said at a media briefing at the scene on Wednesday afternoon.
Besides finding another building for the affected departments, the infrastructure and development department is in the process of relocating workers from an additional eight buildings in the city that were said to be non-compliant.
Both the National Education and Health Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu) and the Democratic Nursing Organisation of South Africa (Denosa) claimed they had warned government authorities prior to Wednesday’s fire, that the building was a “disaster waiting to happen”. They claimed that they raised concerns as far back as 2014.
The National Education and Health Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu) said that several shop stewards were suspended, charged and dismissed after a disciplinary process for raising concerns about the building in 2014.
“As a union we have been consistently raising concerns about the defects in the building since 2014,” Nehawu Gauteng provincial secretary Tshepo Mokheranyana said.
Some of the staff alleged that this was the third fire in a year. Mamabolo declined to comment on the claims.
“I will engage with the union and commission an inquiry, and I will make sure we get a proper report on that,” Mamabolo said.
Albertina Sisulu and Pixley Seme streets were closed on Thursday as announced by MMC for Public Safety, Michael Sun to ensure that no pedestrians or motorists came near the building as glass was still falling. “We certainly don’t want to see anymore injuries,” Sun said.
Meanwhile, firefighters were still on the scene on Thursday afternoon in a bid to contain the fire, that reignited in the early hours of the morning.
It was reported that three firefighters have died after battling a blaze in a building belonging to the Gauteng government. Two firefighters died after they became trapped in the building that is shared by the departments of health, human settlements and cooperative governance. Another firefighter fell to his death earlier in the day while battling the blaze.
Their deaths were confirmed by the Gauteng MEC for Infrastructure Development, Jacob Mamabolo at a media briefing on Wednesday afternoon and their names were released by Michael Sun at a media briefing outside the building on Thursday.
Twenty-eight-year-old Simphiwe Moropane is believed to be the first firefighter to have died in the tragedy, after he slipped and fell from the 23rd floor. He had run out of oxygen and had gone to the ledge to try to get air.
His partner and the mother of his two children has sent tributes out to her husband and set up a GoFundMe page which the public can donate to. So far, the page has raised just over R14 000.
The other two firefighters, 40-year-old Mduduzi Ndlovu and 37-year-old Kathutshelo Muedi are believed to have died from lack of oxygen after they became trapped in the building.
Mayor Herman Mashaba met with the families of the deceased at the Fairview fire station on Thursday.
Gauteng Infrastructure and Development MEC Jacob Mamabolo says he is willing to take the blame for the building fire, in which three firefighters died, if an investigation finds him guilty. “The law must take its course. If an investigation points out that I must take the fall, then the premier must decide,” Mamabolo said.
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Director of mayoral communications at the City of Johannesburg, Luyanda Mfeka, said he was unable to provide details of the memorial service for the firefighters at this stage. “We usually do hold memorials, but that will most likely be announced next week,” he said.
Gauteng MPL Joe Mpisi, who is a member of the Portfolio Committee on Infrastructure, said that this was not the only building in the city that needed to be looked at.
“We discussed the state of a number of buildings within the city, particularly government buildings, and we raised the concern that there was danger coming to this particular building. We are worried about the state of our buildings in this city,” Mpisi said.
“The conditions here are unbearable. They don’t allow for workers to be working in such a building. We have told our members not to report for duty until such time that management attends to our issues,” Mokheranyana said.
The City of Johannesburg has passed on its sincerest condolences to the families of the deceased.