Johannesburg building fire leaves at least 73 dead


Important Takeaways:

  • As many as 200 people may have been living in the building, witnesses said
  • A nighttime fire ripped through a rundown five-story building in Johannesburg that was occupied by homeless people and squatters, leaving at least 73 people dead early Thursday, emergency services in South Africa’s biggest city said.
  • A witness said he saw people throwing babies out of the burning building in an attempt to save them and that at least one man died when he jumped from a window on the third floor and hit the concrete sidewalk “head first.”
  • Seven of the victims were children, the youngest a 1-year-old, according to an emergency services spokesperson.
  • Mulaudzi, the emergency services spokesperson, said the death toll was likely to increase and more bodies were probably trapped inside the building.
  • The fire took three hours to contain, he said, and firefighters needed time to work through all five floors.

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In South African COVID-19 ward, medics battle worst infection wave yet

By Sisipho Skweyiya

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) – At an emergency COVID-19 ward run by a charity in southern Johannesburg, medics wheel gasping patients to their beds, rush from room to room with oxygen cylinders and pat the back of someone in the grip of a coughing fit.

The scenes in the converted community hall are a reminder of how badly South Africa has been hit by its third and most debilitating COVID-19 wave yet, as the infectious Delta variant surges through a mostly unvaccinated population.

“The Delta variant has caused enormous strain on the resources … Every hospital is getting strained, every healthcare worker is getting strained,” said Fatimah Lambat, the doctor in charge of the ward set up by Gift of the Givers, a Muslim charity, to ease overloaded public hospitals.

“It’s very draining … patients are still phoning me from the community for help. And when we’re full here, we still need to help them,” she said. “We don’t want them to be lost.”

With South Africa recording an average of about 20,000 cases a day and nursing active cases, cumulatively, of more than 10 times that, Africa’s most economically advanced nation has also been its worst hit by the virus, with 64,000 deaths.

A vaccination campaign has been slow, with just 4.2 million doses administered to a population of 60 million. Officials aim to reach a vaccination rate of 300,000 a day by the end of August.

Doctors say they have never had to deal with so many COVID-19 infections all at once. Hospitals in the largest city Johannesburg, where the latest wave started, are full.

For 79-year-old Catherine Naidoo, the most terrifying thing about falling gravely ill was knowing that so many had died.

“You don’t know what lies ahead. You look at the news and see how people are passing away,” the recovered COVID-19 patient said, lying on her back and adjusting her mask. “It was the most frightening experience.”

Behind another curtain, medics covered head to toe in protective gear adjusted the drip of a sleeping patient, while in another, a medic was getting a patient to do some exercises before getting her to blow into a tube to test her lungs.

President Cyril Ramaphosa extended COVID-19 restrictions on Sunday for another 14 days, including a ban on gatherings, a curfew from 9 p.m. to 4 a.m. and a nationwide ban on the sale of alcohol.

(Writing by Tim Cocks; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

Johannesburg seeks to avert ‘ecological disaster’ from beetle-infested trees

Some of the millions of trees making up Johannesburg's man-made forest are pictured on October 22, 2018. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Kim Harrisberg

Johannesburg seeks to avert ‘ecological disaster’ from beetle-infested trees
By Kim Harrisberg

JOHANNESBURG (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Researchers and city officials are racing to understand the extent of a beetle infestation damaging trees across South Africa that, if left unaddressed, could have a ripple effect on the climate, air quality and ecosystems.

The Polyphagous Shot Hole Borer (PSHB), indigenous to Southeast Asia, is a tiny beetle that drills holes into trees, depositing a fungus that can eventually kill its hosts.

Estimates of the infestation in Johannesburg, South Africa’s biggest city, range from 5,000 to well over 20,000 trees, while figures across the country are not yet known.

According to Jenny Moodley, spokeswoman for Johannesburg City Parks, trees – besides beautifying urban areas – store planet-warming carbon, filter air pollution, cool temperatures and regulate the climate.

“Removing them could impact the health of residents and the environment, as well as property values in the city,” she said, noting that cutting down the infested trees was a last resort.

The beetle infestation “could trigger an ecological disaster if not managed”, Moodley told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Researchers said the beetles had been spotted in nearly every South African province.

Environmentalists say protecting existing forests and restoring damaged ones prevents flooding, sequesters more carbon, limits climate change and protects biodiversity. [nL3N2760SV]

“Trees are a massive part of the urban landscape,” said Marcus Byrne, an Ig Nobel prize winner and entomologist at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

“They give us shade, clean pollutants, reduce movement of dust and cool the urban heat islands,” he said by phone.

Various solutions to the beetle problem have been proposed, including tree felling and chemical products, said Moodley.

But “no successful proof” has been presented for any one of them as a feasible strategy to roll out country-wide, she added.

“We have hit a stone wall,” she said.

The Johannesburg city website cautions residents against applying chemicals to infected trees, as doing so could contaminate ground water, destroy animal habitats and kill off pollinating insects like bees.

So far the city has removed 220 dead trees that are being chipped into smaller pieces, covered with plastic and left in the sun for three months to kill all the beetles in the wood.

But until more is known about the infestation, the city is cautious about cutting down any more trees, Moodley said.

She urged residents to plant indigenous trees that are not prone to infestation, report any signs of the beetle and take care when buying firewood that may be infested.

Community groups, meanwhile, have started marking beetle-ridden trees with “PSHB” stickers to alert city residents.

The beetle is thought to have entered the country around 2012 on wood pallets, said Wilhelm de Beer, an associate professor in microbiology at the University of Pretoria.

“We do believe this is a risk to other southern African countries,” warned de Beer, who is running workshops on the problem with researchers across 15 African nations.

The beetle attacks more than 300 hard and softwood species of different sizes, noted de Beer, who is working with experts in California where a major outbreak killed millions of trees over the past decade.

Both de Beer and Byrne said more research and data were needed before solutions could be proposed.

Byrne is seeking funding to analyse satellite imagery going back 10 years, and using Google Street View and citizen-gathered data to build maps of the infestation across Johannesburg.

De Beer is researching the use of a natural agent, such as an insect or fungus, to control the infestation.

“We are already losing trees to drought,” de Beer added. “We do not need to lose any more.”

(Reporting by Kim Harrisberg @kimharrisberg; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit

Sporadic violence in Johannesburg as South Africans protest against Zuma

Demonstrators carry banners as they take part in a protest calling for the removal of South Africa's President Jacob Zuma in Johannesburg. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

By Ed Stoddard and TJ Strydom

PRETORIA/JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) – Sporadic violence broke out in Johannesburg as more than 50,000 people marched in South African cities to protest against President Jacob Zuma on Friday, demanding he quit after a cabinet reshuffle triggered the latest crisis of his presidency.

Zuma’s sacking of Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan in the reshuffle last Thursday has outraged allies and opponents alike, undermined his authority and caused rifts in the ruling African National Congress (ANC), which has governed South Africa since the end of white-minority rule in 1994.

Fitch on Friday followed S&P Global Ratings and downgraded South Africa to “junk”, citing Gordhan’s dismissal as one reason. S&P had issued its downgrade on South Africa in an unscheduled review on Monday.

In Johannesburg, police “fired rubber bullets at protesters who were attacking other protesters with stones. Four protesters sustained minor injuries,” Johannesburg Metro Police Department spokesman Wayne Minaar said. Some ANC backers were trying to breach a cordon separating them from members of the opposition Democratic Alliance.

Elsewhere in the city, the marches were peaceful.

Mmusi Maimane, leader of the DA, which had called for the marches, held a rally of more than 10,000 people that was calm, a few streets from the scene of the violence. Some held placards saying “Fire Zuma”.

“Our country is in crisis,” Maimane, who wore a bullet-proof vest under his shirt after the DA said it had received threats to the protest’s leaders, said. “The time to act is now.”

“We are unhappy about his leadership because he does not seem to care about the people,” said Syriana Maesela, 65, a retiree carrying a South African flag. “The irony is I did the same thing in 1976 when I was a student. I also marched then,” she said, referring protests against the apartheid regime.

About 10,000 gathered in a field outside the Union Buildings, the site of Zuma’s offices in Pretoria, South Africa’s capital.


Zuma, 74, has faced protests in the past. The ANC on Wednesday rejected calls for Zuma to quit, and analysts doubted marches would shake the president. It said its members in parliament would vote against a motion of no confidence in Zuma on April 18, a key rallying call for the marchers on Friday.

And Zuma supporters also gathered. About 300 camouflage-clad veterans of the ANC’s now-disbanded Umkhonto we Sizwe (MKMVA ) military wing ringed the party’s Luthuli House building in downtown Johannesburg, mounting mock parades and singing in support of the president.

Some clad in the yellow, green and gold colors of the ANC also danced, waving placards emblazoned with the words: “I’m prepared to die for my ANC” and “Hands off our President”.

“They are free to march freely but not to try and remove a government that was elected democratically,” said Kebby Maphatsoe, the head of the veterans group and also Deputy Minister of Defence and Military Veterans.

“Let them wait for 2019 and we will take them on, but the ones that want to remove it undemocratically, MKMVA will rise up to the occasion.”

The rand <ZAR=D3> weakened slightly after Fitch’s announcement. The currency has tumbled more than 11 percent since March 27, when Zuma ordered Gordhan to return home from overseas talks with investors, days before firing him.

“The bottom line is we are paying for the consequences of the political regime that has lost direction,” said Gary van Staden, analyst at NKC African Economics. The downgrade will add to pressure on Zuma to leave office, he said.

Capital Economics Africa economist John Ashbourne said in a note that although there was mounting opposition to Zuma “we think that the most likely outcome is still that Mr. Zuma will decide the timing of his own exit.”


In Cape Town, motorists hooted in support of the march as about 10,000 people gathered at various points in the city, including outside parliament.

“It’s not simply a question of his removal. It is about the renewal of the ANC and democracy,” said Gerrald Ray, 56, a business strategist.

About 4,000 people were also marching in the coastal city of Durban, the main city in the KwaZulu Natal province, an ANC stronghold.

“We need to unite and fight this corruption,” said Michelle Fortune, 48, a manager who declined to say where she works. She wore a South African flag bandana.

Meanwhile, members of the ANC Youth League gathered in downtown Durban, singing “Awuleth’umshini wami”, a song popularized by Zuma, which means “bring me my gun” and held placards supporting the president.

(Additional reporting by Marius Bosch, Olivia Kumwenda-Mtambo, Nqobile Dludla and Tanisha Heiberg in Johannesburg, Wendell Roelf in Cape Town and Rogan Ward in Durban; Writing by James Macharia; Editing by Larry King)