We paid money to someone in order to reconnect the building illegally whenever the electricity was cut off.
This is testimony by a witness on Tuesday at the judicial commission of inquiry into circumstances surrounding the Marshalltown building fire.
The August 31, 2023 fire at the Usindiso Building in Marshalltown, Johannesburg, claimed 77 lives.
Witness Nqobile Lamola told the commission of inquiry on Tuesday that she started living at Usindiso in November 2018. She said she paid “R500 cold drink money” to two ladies named Julia and Tlhakane in order to get a room in the building.
Lamola said electricity was always available at the building through illegal connections.
She said one night in 2018, members of the South African Police Services (SAPS) and the Johannesburg Metro Police Department (JMPD) came to the building and cut off their illegally connected electricity.
“After they cut it off, a group of residents went around negotiating to have the electricity restored. We were told that each room needed to pay R100 to have the [illegally connected] electricity restored,” said Lamola.
Every room paid R100 to reconnect
Lamola did not elaborate on who collected the payments or to whom the money was delivered.
Earlier on Tuesday, the commission of inquiry heard testimony from two former residents of the Usindiso Building, who detailed what they saw and heard when the fire gutted the building.
The hearings of the commission are taking place at the Sci-Bono Discovery Centre in Newtown, Joburg.
Suvania Subroyen was in charge of the witnesses who testified on Tuesday.
Subroyen is the attorney for the former occupants of the building.
The first witness to take the stand was Daniel Mboza. He told the commission he was fast asleep on the night of the fire until screams woke him up.
“There was no electricity that night. So, I used my phone to provide lighting for my room. I heard people screaming and saying it (the building) was burning. I opened my room door and saw a lot of commotion outside.
“There was smoke and fire everywhere. I quickly took my ID (Identity Document), dressed up, took my cellphone and ran out. I used the building’s fire escape route because it was not on fire,” said Mboza.
Mboza said he does not know what caused the fire.
Another witness, Siphiwe Ngcobo, said she lost her child during the fateful night of the fire.
Wailing in the fire
Ngcobo said she was outside the building cooking on her braai stand when she heard a person crying on the night of the fire.
“I was standing outside with two Tanzanian nationals who were cooking with their stoves. I heard a person crying. I thought the person who was crying would come out of the building. The person did not come out,” said Ngcobo.
“We then heard someone screaming that there was a fire. I tried to go upstairs and fetch my two children, who were on the second floor where we lived. I could not reach the second floor because there were so many people on the stairs who were carrying beds and on top of each other,” said Ngcobo.
“I saw a resident with a fire extinguisher inside the building, and I asked him to go with me to the second floor so that he could assist me to find my children. The residents informed the man that another area of the building was on fire and that he should go put it out, so he was unable to go with me.
Loss of a child
“I kept looking for my children around the building, but I could not find them. Then I was told by the people who were helping clear out residents from the building that no one is allowed to go inside the building anymore because of the ravaging fire,” said Ngcobo.
She said while she was outside the building, one of the residents told her one of her children was rescued and was placed in an ambulance.
“I asked the resident where my other child is, and he said he does not know. I asked him to go and look for her in the building.
“He went back into the building and came back with the child. I told him to rush the child to the ambulance. The paramedics attended to the child. While I was standing aside, watching the paramedics resuscitate my child, I saw them remove the equipment they were using to resuscitate my child from her body.
“I then went to the paramedics and asked them what was happening to my child. That is when they told me that my child had just died,” said Ngcobo while crying.
The commission of inquiry resumes on Wednesday morning at 10am with more testimony expected from survivors of the Usindiso Building fire.
Sisi Khampepe, a retired former Constitutional Court judge, is the commission’s chair. Another commissioner is Vuyelwa Mathida Mabena.
The inquiry seeks to determine the cause of the fire and the prevalence of hijacked buildings in the 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 in the fire, while 88 other people were injured.