NGO demands recusal of commissioner in Marshalltown fire inquiry

A judicial commission of inquiry into circumstances surrounding the deaths of 77 people at the Usindiso Building in Marshalltown, Johannesburg resumed on Tuesday.

Quickly after resuming since its postponement over a month ago, the inquiry was called upon to deal with a recusal application brought against one of its commissioners.

The Socio-Economic Rights Institute (Seri), a non-government organisation (NGO), tabled the application against advocate Thulani Makhubela, saying he posted xenophobic comments on his official X account.

The proceedings at the Sci-Bono Discovery Centre in Newtown started with Seri’s legal representative, advocate Jason Brickhill, leading arguments for Makhubela’s recusal.

Brickhill said Makhubela’s posts between 2017 and 2023 express anti-foreigner sentiments, noting that the commissioner’s views lean towards his bias against foreigners.

“The applicant [Seri] became aware of the tweets during the second day of the commission [October 27] and they caused a discomfort,” said Brickhill.

“These were extensive tweets for a period of six years starting in 2017. These tweets showed strong support for certain organisations.” 

Brickhill said it is the responsibility of the chairperson of the inquiry, retired Constitutional Court judge Sisi Khampepe, to make a ruling on the application for Makhubela’s recusal. 

Social media posts

On Makhubela’s official X account, there are posts he made in 2022 showing support to Put South Africans First and Operation Dudula movements. 

The proceedings, previously held at the Sunnyside Office Park, Wits University clinical research offices in Parktown, were postponed indefinitely in October due to the venue not being compliant with the by-laws of the City of Johannesburg.

In October, the commission heard testimonies from City of Johannesburg emergency management services’ employees and police officers on how the residents of the Usindiso Building died after jumping out of windows to escape the fire.

The inquiry, which was established by Gauteng premier Panyaza Lesufi, seeks to determine the cause of the fire and the prevalence of hijacked buildings in Johannesburg CBD.

It is expected to make a ruling and recommendations on who should shoulder the blame for the deaths, injuries and homelessness of those who survived the fire.

Seventy-seven people including 12 children were killed and 88 other people were injured when the fire engulfed the Usindiso Building on August 31.

Khampepe is assisted by Makhubela and Vuyelwa Mathida Mabena. Advocate Ishmael Semenya SC is the evidence leader of the inquiry.

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