‘Usindiso was hijacked in 2018 when NGO’s lease was not renewed’

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The Johannesburg Property Company (JPC) has told the Commission of Inquiry into the Usindiso building fire in Johannesburg that the building was hijacked in 2018 after the lease with the NGO that was occupying it was not renewed.

CEO of the JPC, Hellen Botes, has been testifying at the Commission into the deaths of 77 people killed during the August 2023 blaze.

Scores of others were left injured and displaced as a result.

Botes told the Commission that the NGO’s lease wasn’t renewed due to its lack of funding to fulfill a new lease agreement.

“He wasn’t going to get funding from social development, so he had no mechanism, so he had no way of paying the lease agreement; let alone if we had to renew the lease agreement with him, he would not have been able to pay the lease because you can see from his payments. So he was not labelled a good tenant from a payment point of view. The NGO was no longer receiving their grants from social development, which means that if he had to do any repairs or maintenance as per the lease agreement that we would enter into, he would have the inability to do that.”

Botes says they did approach the Johannesburg Social Housing Company (JOSHCO) to purchase the building from them in 2018, but due to a lack of funding, they were not able to.

She adds that after JOSCHO failed to purchase the building, they were left with the tenants still living in the building, which they couldn’t evict as they didn’t have alternate accommodations to house them.

“From the JOSCHO perspective, they could not acquire the building as they did not have sufficient funding and other priorities in the inner city, as JOSCHO is responsible for providing social housing, so the JOSHCO initiative falls away. So those attempts don’t yield any results. Then what were left with is the building with occupants in, and we cannot evict them because we would have to provide them with temporary accommodation.”