South Africa: Lessons For The World From A Deadly Fire

four storey building in Johannesburg damaged by fire on Aug 31-Sep 1 2023
Johannesburg fire6 photo by Bobbyshabangu is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

This post starts a series about housing and homelessness in South Africa and Canada. South Africa and Canada share a long history. Here are a few sample events:

    • Officials from South Africa studied Canada’s Indian Act and visited Reserves when designing the Apartheid system. (We aren’t saying that the shared history is/was necessarily honourable or humanitarian.)
    • Nelson Mandela credited Canada’s Prime Minister Brian Mulroney for being a strong influence in South Africa’s decision to release Mandela from prison.
    • Both countries support a person’s right to adequate housing, South Africa in its constitution and Canada through the 2019 National Housing Strategy Act.

This series is about housing and homelessness in South Africa and Canada. It might be a source of inspiration/direction for housing efforts in either or both countries. Readers in other countries who are calling for a right to adequate housing may also find these posts useful1.

On the last day of August 2023, fire swept through 80 Albert Street (pictured above) in Johannesburg. As far as is known, the building belongs to the City of Johannesburg. And although it was officially vacant, at least 77 people died.

The building was missing basic safety features, like fire alarms and basic amenities such as water. It was also home to people with very low incomes who were, and still are, priced out of the formal housing market.

The City of Johannesburg owns other buildings that are providing unofficial housing for residents. Recognizing that the buildings are important to the city’s housing supply, a team of planners, architects and researchers have written an article with recommendations for the City government.

The writers urge the City to put priority on steps to make the buildings safer for residents. The steps include clearing fire lanes, making sure that fire escapes are working and instituting regular trash pickup. The writers also recommend public health measures including water delivery and portable latrines to improve hygiene opportunities for the residents.

In the longer term, the writers recommend that the buildings be renovated to provide permanent non-market housing for people with very low incomes.

These recommendations are quite different from the stories we read in North America, where Councils and local officials are clearing encampments and boarding up vacant buildings. The article discusses three reasons why clearances in South Africa are not appropriate:

    • The Blue Moonlight court decision. Handed down in 2011, it prevented the Johannesburg government from turning over its vacant buildings to private sector owners.
    • The reality that forced evictions violate South Africa’s constitution.
    • Clearances add to the numbers of people needing shelter. There is already an insufficient supply of permanent or emergency housing.

These conditions set the stage for:

    • recommending measures to make existing temporary housing safe, and
    • renovating City owned buildings for use as permanent housing for people with very low incomes.

The article also refers to the City of Johannesburg’s 2017 Housing Plan, which was updated in 2020. The Plan identifies the level of housing need among people who are priced out of the formal housing market. It also includes targets for new construction to meet that need. This is evidence that the City is aware of its constitutional obligation to progressively achieve adequate housing for all residents.

Like South Africa, Canada has affirmed the right to adequate housing. The experience from South Africa suggests directions that might be effective in progressively achieving the right to adequate housing in Canada. For example:

    • Now that Canada has passed the National Housing Strategy Act, is there potential for a “Blue Moonlight” court case in Canada?
    • Should Canadians be following the lead of the article linked below and be implementing immediate measures to make unsafe spaces safer? There is a precedent for this in Ontario’s Fire Code. It includes alternatives to forced eviction when an occupied building violates the fire safety rules.

Read more about proposed actions in temporary informal housing in The Conversation: Johannesburg Fire: There Was A Plan To Fix Derelict Buildings And Provide Good Accommodation – How To Move Forward

Here are titles of the posts in this series, which are being published this week:

    • South Africa: Lessons For The World From A Deadly Fire
    • South Africa: Women’s Experience Of Post-Apartheid Development
    • Emergency Responses Miss Opportunities To Build Up Communities
    • Housing, Land And Property Rights In South Africa And Canada
    • Potable Water: A Pillar In The Right To Adequate Housing And Essential To Life


  1. Special thanks to Quote This Woman + for leading us to the sources for these posts.