Joburg CBD Fire: Inside the dilapidated hijacked buildings that sprawl the Johannesburg city centre

Platinum Place's lift shaft had become a rubbish tip. Picture: Angela Rivers.

Platinum Place's lift shaft had become a rubbish tip. Picture: Angela Rivers.

Published Aug 31, 2023


Johannesburg - The Johannesburg Property Owners and Managers Association (JPOMA) has called on the City of Joburg to act against those who have hijacked buildings in the inner city, plunged them into squalor and turning them into crime hotspots.

According to Angela Rivers, the association’s general manager, the issue has escalated over the past few years to the point where their members seek advice on a weekly basis about how to protect their tenants and their businesses. The association represents most of the landlords in Johannesburg’s inner city.

Photographs of Platinum Place after the illegal tenants had finally left showed the inhuman conditions in which these people lived. Picture: Angela Rivers.

“The issue is such a thorn in the city’s side, and our research indicates that there are criminals who have been getting away with this for a decade or more. They undermine the law, rule with violence and allow the complete degradation of buildings in the inner city as the services get cut off due to non-payment. Even the police are afraid to confront these thugs,” says Rivers.

Platinum Place is one such building. Situated at 31 Van Beek Street in New Doornfontein, in the heart of a former industrial area, the building is believed to have housed clothing manufacturing businesses, before the garment trade faltered as cheap Chinese imports flooded the market. The unoccupied building was hijacked at some point, and deteriorated into utter squalor over a number of years.

Illegal tenants had damaged water pipes to get access to water at Platinum Place. Picture: Angela Rivers

When property company Afhco purchased the building on auction in 2010, it was part of a plan to upgrade the surrounding area. The company had bought two other, adjoining buildings across the street with the idea to create a well-managed precinct. The city had just upgraded the nearby taxi rank and it was a perfect opportunity.

People are living there… a view into a room in Msibi House which was first hijacked more than 16 years ago. Supplied image.

But the reality of what they were faced with proved to be daunting, said Afhco COO at the time, Renney Plit. Water and power to Platinum Place had been cut so the inhabitants had damaged the water pipes to get free access to water, and water and sewage was seeping into the street. Power was stolen from neighbouring properties. The building was in effect a garbage tip, with the lift shaft used to dump refuse into and the interior finishes ripped out from floor to ceiling. Illegal tenants were living in this squalor, paying the hijackers around R600 per week.

According to Plit the entire city block had been hijacked and was in effect sold as one. “It took us two years to evict the illegal tenants and about three months to clean it at a cost, back then, of R600 000 – today that would have been around R2 million. We had to use a front loader to clear the rubbish as there was simply too much to have people clean it manually. We collected 165 skips of rubbish. During the time we were cleaning up we had to spend a further R100 000 to secure the building every month to prevent it being re-hijacked.”

What remained after the illegal tenants finally evacuated Platinum Place. Picture: Angela Rivers

Afhco transformed Platinum Place, and today it is unrecognisable from the horrors of a decade ago, offering clean, safe, affordable housing in a functioning, well-managed building. However, the neighbourhood’s problems have not gone away, because Msibi House, right across the road, has resisted all attempts to oust the hijackers, and remains an eyesore 16 years after it was first hijacked.

Platinum Place after the illegal tenants had finally left. Picture: Angela Rivers

As the photographs show, hijacked buildings are not fit for human habitation.

What passes for ‘rules’ in Msibi House, where people live in squalor. Picture: Angela Rivers

“The private sector can and does its bit, but we need the City to take action once and for all and formulate a workable strategy against hijacking of buildings,” says Rivers. “People should be able to live and work safely in the inner city, in accommodation that is affordable but maintained properly. What is happening in our city borders on human rights violations.”

The Saturday Star