EDITORIAL: The stench of Joburg lingers in the ashes of Usindiso 

The City of Johannesburg has been found liable for the Usindiso building fire, and this finding should anger all residents of Johannesburg. 

On Monday 05 May 2024, the commission of inquiry into the Usindiso building fire found the City of Johannesburg (CoJ) and its entity Johannesburg Property Company (JPC) to be liable for the tragedy.  

This finding comes after Gauteng premier Panyaza Lesufi established a commission of inquiry, chaired by Justice Sisi Khampepe, in September last year to investigate the circumstances surrounding the fire at the Usindiso building in August 2023, which claimed 76 lives. 

In short, the reasoning behind the findings of the commission boils down to severe neglect. According to the commission report, the building was declared a “problem property” as far back as 2019. 

Why was the building declared a problem property? Well, the building had violated numerous municipal by-laws relating to water, electricity, public safety, waste management and emergency services. Occupants detailed the presence of numerous illegal electricity connections, overcrowding of rooms and the usage of water from firefighting installations as domestic water supply.  

These are a mere snapshot of the conditions that made Usindiso unlivable- others included violent crime, a lack of waste management and the blocking of emergency exits by shacks – things CoJ was made aware of over four years ago.  

The building was initially abandoned in 2017 by Usindiso Ministries and was never zoned for residential purposes. By 2019, the CoJ and JPC were aware of this. Moreover, they were aware of the decaying state of the building, with the commission report stating the building was liable to be demolished back then. This did not occur, however, and the building was soon hijacked and illegally occupied. 

As the property owners, the CoJ and JPC were then responsible for ensuring compliance with these by-laws designed to ensure building safety. If this had been done, the fire would arguably not have had the devastating consequences it did. According to the commission report, “Law enforcement at Usindiso building was virtually absent and there was no political accountability taken by the officials of the City for the condition of the building both at the time and in the aftermath of the fire.” 

In essence, the severity of the fire could have been prevented had the CoJ simply done its job. While yes, the fire was caused by an isolated incident (a man setting someone on fire on the ground floor), did the fire have to reach the levels it did? In the commission report, survivors detail how they could not access escape routes and had to jump from the fourth floor to survive. If the CoJ had addressed the fact that shacks had been blocking emergency passages, would more people have been able to escape?  

This is just an example of how neglect exacerbated the fire, and there’s more that could be said to illustrate the point. If water had been supplied to the building, residents would probably not have tampered with firefighting instalments. If the municipality had disconnected the illegal electricity connections in the building, perhaps the flame would not have spread as quickly as it did. The list could go on. 

In other words, if the municipality had taken accountability, the commission would not be recommending a plaque to commemorate 76 lives.  

As South Africans and residents of Joburg, this should enrage us. The Usindiso fire is not just a random tragedy, it is a product of governmental incompetence and complicity. In the rubble and ashes, the stench of Johannesburg’s corrupt government lingers – a stench that has proven to be fatal now. 

In Westbury young people’s choices are limited to gangsterism or staying indoors

Well-resourced recreational facilities are meant to serve as a haven for the youth but that’s not the case for the community of Westbury.

The Joburg west suburb, Westbury has been crying about gang violence and drugs for years on end and their cries have seemingly gone unheard. The weekend of February 25, 2023 was the start of another cycle of violence in this community, two people were killed and 11 injured as a result of gang-related violence.

Like in the previous instances of violence in Westbury, the government, this time led by Minister of Police Bheki Cele reacted through a community meeting. A platform for the community to engage and air their grievances, one community member said: “We want to work – I can tell you that. We want to do [recreational] activities – but nothing is coming to us,” reported Eyewitness News.

Recreational facilities and activities that are well-resourced and maintained can help reduce the number of youth that join gangs in marginalised communities, according to the Southern African Journal of Social Work and Social Development Research, which explores the link between gang participation and the exclusion from recreational facilities.

The study further added that these spaces can help reduce and prevent crime by preventing juvenile delinquency through upskilling and keeping the youth busy. When young people don’t have access to these and have grown up in a violent environment, the chances of them falling prey to gangsterism is high. The effects of poverty and not being able to get out of the cycle of poverty can have a longlasting impact from generation to generation.

A section to the south of Sophiatown became a municipal shelter location known as Western Native Township to restrict African settlement in Johannesburg after 1924 when the Native Act of 1923 was enacted. The area was named Western Coloured Township after the Group Areas Act of 1950, and then renamed Westbury in the 1960s. The spatial planning cannot be ignored in how it contributed to how the area has turned out.

Spatial planning was designed to keep people of colour away from opportunities that could better their lives, research shows that people in these areas were kept far away from the economic opportunities that could help change their fortunes.

According to Wits University professor, Clive Glaser, who studies youth culture and the history of South Africa, young men need to have a sense of belonging , a space that’s bigger than a neighbourhood where they do not feel that their manhood is blocked socially, politically and economically. When manhood can not be exercised in these ways, exerting it through violence is often the route taken.

“Apartheid planning generally has contributed to that [gang violence] when you get areas that are poor and cut off and a few opportunities for young people and gangs look like more viable life choices than going the route of education,” said Glaser.

Lerato Ndlovu being shown around on where the youth programs take place in the Westbury Transformation Development Centre. Photo: Aphelele Mbokotho

Ending Cycles of Violence follows the origins of the formation of gangs in western Johannesburg during Apartheid and focuses on three periods of what it calls “gang violence cycles”.

The first “cycle” from 1994 to 1999 was defined by extreme violence when Westbury had the highest mandrax consumption in the country and a lot of turf wars were happening and then a gang truce, which was the result of the Westbury peace process in early 1999 when gang leaders from the various gang groups met to make peace.

The second cycle, from 2000 to 2013, saw the emergence of new criminal drug lords, an increase of drugs, and a lot of protests by residents that resulted in a visit from then-president, Jacob Zuma. The third cycle, 2014 to 2018, saw an increase in murder in the area and police involvement in criminal activities.

“The gangs in the Ward have been around for decades and will continue to be unless the cycle is broken and people are able to get back on their feet and not be dependent on the drug peddlers and gangs that they become affiliated with in order to survive,” said Susan Stewart, former ward 82 councillor. Stewart was in the position for 10 years and said little has changed since her term in office.

The crime statistics from crime hub show that the Sophiatown precinct where Westbury crimes are reported, showed an increase of almost 50 % over the last 10 years for attempted murder. Twenty seven attempted murder cases were reported in 2012 and 49 in 2022.

Drug related crimes have also been on the increase, reaching a peak in 2014/15 with 1515 cases reported. There’s been a slight increase between 2012 and 2022 where the number of cases were 906 and 1010 respectively. Murder had the highest increase over the past 10 years where the murder cases went from 12 in 2012 to 29 in 2022.

“The Crime Prevention Units and SAPS etc are not effective in dealing with the issues within the Ward and many are alleged to be involved with the syndicates, bribery and corruption and so there is very little to no hope that the situation will ever improve.  To eradicate society of gang violence the justice system has to work and unfortunately, it does not.  Even when arrested many of them are set free after bribing someone,” said Stewart.

Supporting this statement is a study, Ending Cycles of Violence which revealed police corruption and complicity in crime in the Western suburbs of Johannesburg.

“All the major gang bosses have police on their payroll. Some, he said, ‘are considered expendable because they can easily be replaced. Detectives are considered more important because they have access to dockets and decide who gets charged and who doesn’t,” the study revealed.

A resident of Westbury and a pastor in the community Doreen Babi, was a victim of police corruption where her identity was revealed to criminals for being a witness to a crime. “ I was an eyewitness for a murder case because they shot my friend… I was unknown and this policeman gave my identity to the people that shot my friend,” Babi recalled.

The most common area where profits from the drug economy have empowered gangs is their access to firearms. All the evidence suggests that today, influential gangs have more access to firepower than they did in the past. This is supported by the crime statistics of illegal possession of firearms and ammunition which had 22 cases 10 years ago but in 2022 the cases have increased to 61.

When asked where the youth obtained these illegal firearms, Babi adamantly said that it was from the police.

“The COJ has always and still done superficial intervention to real problems.  Window dressing as I would call it.  They create programs that encourage the youth to participate with a small stipend attached for a week, sometimes a few weeks or months and if they are lucky maybe even a certificate at the end that gives them access to nothing as it goes nowhere from there because there are no jobs that will absorb them after the fact,” said Stewart.

The youth often end up where they began after the programs that the city introduces in the community which is the reason why the youth of the community are crying out for recreational activities when they are there, they just aren’t programs that are run long enough she further added.

The City of Johannesburg has been allocated 57.7 million for community development for the current year and of that money sports and recreational centre’s are allocated R215 713 as shown in the Draft Medium Term Budget 2023/24-2025/26.

In this R215 713, money is allocated to Westbury to run some youth development programs. In Westbury, there’s a facility that lives by the motto: “We replace the guns and drugs with our skills development programmmes.”  Westbury Youth Centre runs a three-month job readiness program with the City of Johannesburg where each month they take 50 young people and provide computer training and conduct interview preparation, in an effort to make them employable.

“I would ask the city to extend those 3 months and fund us for a year because these programmes work but three months is not enough to run these programmes,” said Bridget Munnik, manager of the Westbury Youth Centre.

Among these facilities is the Westbury Transformation Development Centre which was recently upgraded by the Johannesburg Development Agency on behalf of the City of Johannesburg and cost the city R67 million. The centre opened in February 2019, and it offers sports and other recreational activities which they hope will empower and motivate the youth to improve their lifestyle and subsequently keep the youth off the streets.

Other services on offer include internet and computer access at the skills development facility, so people can look and apply for work.

Access to resources that focus on skills building, empowerment and the development of self-esteem is an important component in ensuring the protection of young people from the appeal of gangs.

The City of Joburg also runs programmes with I Love Robotics that cater to the vulnerable youth (12 year olds upwards). They run a Robotics programme during the April holidays which keeps these young people engaged in something interesting because it is around this age where it is reported that young people are most susceptible to influence.

This is another example of a programme which is too short, Stewart said more time would increase participants chances of employability.

“Keeping young people in school and enrolled in positive activities and providing proper resources, which could minimise the chances of them joining in gang violence, help them to become agents of change rather than threats in the society” reported SCielo in a study of the youth gang violence on the educational attainment and what benefits the youth get from joining gangs than being in schools.

Unfortunately for the schools in Westbury they cannot make schools a place where the learners can become these agents of change because the school premises have become a battlefield between gang members.

Carte blanche reported in May 2023 that 99% of learners in schools in Westbury aspire to become drug lords. Gang violence in this community has overflowed into the school premises and the work the school would do of having extramural activities is overshadowed by the violence that has entered the schools.

“The environment here at school currently is very volatile… The fights are normally between gang-related gangs, one gang attacking the other one because of what happened over the weekend” reported SABC News, speaking to the principal of Westbury Secondary School on how the school has become a battlefield.

Supporting this statement Munnik said: “It’s chaos at our schools, chaos because there are gangsters at the schools, especially in matric and so the two gangsters cannot see eye to eye in one school.”

The public safety Member of the Mayoral Committee (MMC) was reached out to, to provide insight on the safety approach to the rampant criminality in the community but no response was received from him.

Joburg’s landfills almost at capacity

Soon, the city of Joburg will be sinking in its own rubbish

Piles of waste next to the road in Johannesburg’s CBD. Photo: Ayanda Mgwenya

While walking through Johannesburg’s CBD, it is difficult to ignore the amount of rubbish that coats the inner city’s streets. Bree Street, which was recently hit by a gas explosion, is now filled with some of the waste that is carried throughout the city and blown around by the wind, into the raptured road.

However, a more pressing issue lies hidden within Johannesburg’s landfills, which are meant to accommodate the continuously increasing piles of waste from the streets and illegal dumping grounds.

The current operating landfills in Johannesburg, namely: Goudkoppies Landfill Site, Marie Louis Landfill Site, Genesis Landfill Site, and Robinson Deep Landfill Site, are running out of space to dispose of waste rapidly produced by the increasing population of residents living in Johannesburg.

A report, compiled by, Kobus Otto & Associates Waste Management Consultants, a professional civil engineering organisation with extensive experience in waste management, titled Current Status of Landfill Airspace in Gauteng, which is affiliated with the Institute of Waste Management of Southern Africa (IWMSA), states that these landfills have less than five years before they close.

According to the DA’s Shadow MMC of Public Safety, Michael Sun, who spoke to SowetanLive during his time as the MMC for Environment and Infrastructure Services, said, “There is a critical need for waste reduction in that the city’s existing landfills are running out of airspace at a very fast rate.” This could mean that the current operating landfills in Johannesburg are close to exceeding the benchmark of their airspace capacity.

Situated in industrial peripheries of Turffontein is the Robinsons Deep Landfill Site. It is the largest and oldest landfill in the city and has been in operation since 1933.

As you arrive at Robinson Landfill, the first thing that strikes you is the sight of the towering mountains, but instead of its natural greenery, they are composed of an overwhelming amount of waste.

Going further up the mountain, the waste thickens. Piles upon piles of discarded items strewn about, accompanied by an overwhelming and repulsive stench that will assault your senses – with waste pickers actively searching for anything valuable – be it plastic, glass or cardboard for recycling.

“The waste pickers are there illegally, in terms of our license, they are not supposed to be there.”

Donald Radingoana

You will find a variety of waste such Municipal Solid Waste (MSW): This is the most common type of domestic waste and includes everyday items like food scraps, packaging materials, newspapers, clothing, plastics, glass, paper products, and other common household materials.

Organic waste, such as food waste, garden waste (including leaves, branches, and grass clippings), and other biodegradable materials, is also commonly deposited in landfills.

Building rubble (concrete from demolished structures, including foundations, walls, bricks and pavement), and other hazardous materials like cleaning chemicals, pesticides, batteries, and electronic waste is found in the landfill too.

All of this waste is combined without proper sorting, forming unorganized piles. Large trucks queue up one after the other, from as early as 09:00 to as late as 20:00, to deposit this waste in the landfill. This is a daily on-going process and without massive effective recycling methods, the waste will continue to pile up.

Wits Vuvuzela interviewed Donald Radingoana, the general manager for landfill operations at Pikitup who said, “what determines the lifespan of a landfill is the capacity [airspace]. Every now and then, the surveyor comes and surveys the stockpile [of waste]” to determine the height of the pile. According to their license which determines the capacity, Radingoana said that the total capacity of the landfill is 25 000 000m3, and Robinsons has occupied 24 000 000m3 which leaves the landfill with only 1 000 000m3 remaining, and this airspace can keep them operating for four years.

Waste scattered at the Robinsons landfill. Photo: Ayanda Mgwenya

Pikitup, a subsidiary of the City of Johannesburg (CoJ), serves as the primary waste management service provider within the CoJ. Its core responsibilities encompass the collection and disposal of household waste, carried out through the operation of four distinct landfills across Johannesburg. On a weekly basis, Pikitup delivers waste management services to 1.4 million formal households and 260 informal settlements in Johannesburg.

Pikitup has two primary objectives. The first objective is to achieve “Zero waste to landfills by 2022,” aligning with the global best practice standard, which stipulates that only 10% of the waste stream should be disposed of in landfills”.

The second key objective of Pikitup is to promote recycling. Recycling is essential in the reduction of the amount of waste sent to landfills and extracting maximum value from the waste stream.

Unfortunately, Pikitup has not been able to meet its own objectives in the reduction of waste sent to the landfills. Currently, only 13% of the waste in Johannesburg undergoes recycling, indicating that the combined efforts of all landfills result in recycling less waste than they generate.

The volume of waste generated by the residents of the city has increased significantly. With an increasing monthly population of 3000-5000 people every month, according to Sun in an interview with the Daily Maverick, more waste is yet to be generated. This means that as more people come into the city, the consumption of products and use of resources increases, thus, more waste is generated into the city.

The Association for Water and Rural Development, which is a nonprofit organization dedicated to implementing research-driven, multidisciplinary projects and addresses issues of sustainability, conducted a study in 2019. It found that, “every single person (in South Africa) generates up to 2,5 kilograms of waste per day, depending on his or her level of income.” The CoJ collects approximately 6000 tonnes of waste every single day.

This tells us that increased waste production can lead to environmental issues, such as land and water pollution, if waste is not managed properly. It can also pose health risks, as improper disposal and open dumping can lead to the spread of diseases and contamination of air and water sources. Extensive waste generation can also result in increased economic costs for waste collection and disposal.

The New York State Department of Health states that, “Landfill gas contains many different gases. Methane and carbon dioxide makes up 90 to 98% of landfill gas. The remaining 2 to 10% includes nitrogen, oxygen, ammonia, sulfides, hydrogen and various other gases. Landfill gases are produced when bacteria break down organic waste.”

Simply put, high greenhouse gas emissions signify an increased release of gases like carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming and climate change. This amplifies the carbon footprint, as it measures one’s environmental impact in terms of emissions. A high carbon footprint indicates greater environmental harm, requiring urgent reduction efforts for sustainability.

According to Pikitup, the city produces over 1.4 million tons of waste per year, and this excludes illegal dumping.

Radingoana said that there are no machines for processing domestic waste, but only crushers, which is the equipment used to recycle builders’ rubble. Which means that the majority of the food scraps go to the landfill. When a landfill contains higher amounts of organic waste, it results in increased production of landfill gases.

The landfill (Robinsons Deep) depends on private recycling companies, which recycle waste. These companies select the waste they want and handle the sorting themselves. Any waste they reject is transported back to the landfill site by Pikitup trucks.

Securing a new landfill site is a process that requires extensive regulation and. Radingoana said, “the process of applying for a permit takes plus-minus two years.” He told Wits Vuvuzela that Robinson Deep bought land next to it, to extend the life of the existing landfill to avoid applying for decommissioning. He said that they have started the process of applying for a permit for the new site because getting a permit after decommissioning is not easy and are doing this before they reach the capacity of 25 000 000m3.

He says the reason why it takes two years is because they must do environmental studies such as the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), geological studies, biodiversity studies, hydrological studies and consent from the neigbouring communities.

“Spokesperson of Pikitup, Muzi Mkhwanazu said, “Pikitup and the City are involved in discussion for the purchase of land for future airspace. Phase 1 of the Feasibility studies is completed. The site identified is suitable for landfilling and the discussions with the City [of Joburg] for the release of land has been favourably concluded.”

The construction of a landfill itself is another process altogether. Radingoana claims that the cost of constructing a new site with a lifespan of over 20 years (such as Robinson Deep) is R200 million and can take more than five years for it to start operating.

The aim is to ensure that the new land is secured and ready for the expansion of the existing landfill before Robinson Deep runs out of airspace to avoid being non-compliant, and spaceless for additional waste.

Siyabonga Zungu, a frequent waste picker at Robinson Deep said, “I come here almost every day, this is how I make a living.”  He said that he stays at the community of Booysen (which is next to the landfill) with his girlfriend whom he met two years ago and is also waste picker. He told Wits Vuvuzela that he has been a waste reclaimer for six years now and moves around in various dumps to collect waste and take it to entities that are looking for recyclables. He said that he has been reclaiming waste at Robinson for two years and six months.

“It very dangerous to do this kind of work, sometimes fights would start randomly because people steal other people’s waste here inside the landfill then things would just get out of hand.” He told Wits Vuvuzela that his family in Kwazulu-Natal (KZN) where he comes from does not know that he is a waste picker. He told them that he is an entrepreneur that sells electrical equipment like earphones and phone chargers.

The National Environmental Management: Waste Act of 2008 is responsible for ensuring and regulating that the national standards of waste management such as licensing, contaminated land restoration, waste information systems, compliance and enforcement are well reinforced.

This means that landfill owners have to secure a waste management license in order to fully function with well-managed facilities, strict monitoring and a properly engineered site.

According to Radingoana, “The waste pickers are there [at Robinsons Deep] illegally; in terms of our license, they are not supposed to be there.”

The Minimum Requirements for Waste Disposal by Landfill, Second Edition 1998, issued by the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry, discourages waste reclamation at landfill sites. If a license holder chooses to permit controlled reclamation at a general waste disposal site, they must request permission either when applying for their waste management license or by amending an existing permit/license.

The operation of landfills involves various expenses related to construction, operation, maintenance, compliance, and long-term care.

Financial resources are essential to ensure that landfills function safely, environmentally responsibly, and in accordance with regulations. Radiongoana said that the City budgets R100 million for the four operating landfills in total, which means that Robinson receives R25 million every year, and “is not enough” to effectively ensure that all the operations run smoothly.

Radingoana said that he is currently in the process of refurbishing a structure at Robinsons Deep which he calls Material Recovery Facility (MRF) where the sorting of waste will take place. He said, “any truck that goes into the landfill, must first go dump waste at MRF where the sorting will be done in order to recover raw material.” He said anything that will not be unrecyclable or non-material will go to landfill site to be buried.

The law stipulates that a landfill has to be 500 kilometers away from the residents. However, as the city develops, more people come into the city, some moving towards the outskirts of the city and reaching even the industrialised areas of the city which were not initially intended for communities.

Johannesburg faces a looming landfill crisis, with existing sites nearing capacity. Despite efforts by Pikitup and regulations in place, waste generation outpaces recycling. The city urgently needs new landfill space, highlighting the complex challenges of waste management in a rapidly growing urban landscape.

The Arts and the African City

TOGETHER THROUGH ART: The theme of the 2014 Arts Alive Festival is 20 years of democracy, emphasizing the role the art's had in ending Apartheid.

TOGETHER THROUGH ART: The theme of the 2014 Arts Alive Festival is 20 years of democracy, emphasizing the role the art’s had in ending Apartheid. Photo: Provided

The people of Johannesburg once again have the opportunity to experience the city in an artistic way. Poetry, music, dance and theatre are being celebrated during the Johannesburg Arts Alive International Festival, which kicked off on the 31st of August.

“Cities are more than just about bricks and mortar, they are about the quality of life,” says Festival Director Lesley Hudson.

“The arts makes a huge contribution to the way we experience our city, and the Johannesburg Arts Alive International Festival plays an important part in this.”

Hosted by the City of Johannesburg, this is the 22nd year the Festival is being held. It has an intense programme that offers a wide range of performances, exhibitions, workshops and musicals, taking place at various venues in the city.

The theme of this year is 20 years of democracy, and a lot of the shows were organised around it. Hudson emphasizes that the organisers of the Festival try every year to consider the different genres, ages of the audience when deciding on the festival’s programme.

“But most importantly, we try to pair the unexpected with the better known. So, you will come to a concert because you recognise a name, but will be exposed to a performer you would not ordinarily have seen,” says Hudson. “It’s about broadening horizons.”

The Festival started during the last few years of Apartheid, when the arts were used in the drive to shift South Africa towards a democracy. Hudson says the city of Johannesburg realized an arts festival could “give voice to its citizens” and be part of building a better and fairer society.

The festival is running until the 10th of September, and Hudson encourages both students and the public to go beyond what they know and feel comfortable with, and let the festival “wow them”.

“There is nothing more thrilling than seeing 24 000 Joburgers all speaking the language of music; enjoying the sun, the sound, and each other,” says Hudson.