Suspect arrested over South Africa building fire that killed 77

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A 29-year-old man told an inquiry of his involvement in starting the fire on August 31, 2023.

South African police have arrested a man suspected of starting the fire that killed dozens of people in a building in downtown Johannesburg last year.

Police confirmed the arrest on Wednesday, a day after the 29-year-old suspect told an inquiry into the fire that he was involved in starting it.

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The man is expected to appear before a Johannesburg court “soon” on charges of arson, 77 counts of murder and 120 counts of attempted murder, police said in a statement cited by the Reuters news agency.

The blaze on August 31, 2023, ripped through the five-storey Usindiso building in Marshalltown in Johannesburg’s inner city.

The building, which was once an apartheid-era “pass laws” office and later a women’s shelter, was then “hijacked”, or taken over, and used for illegal housing.

Many of the victims of August’s blaze, including migrants from neighbouring countries, were burned beyond recognition.

Emergency services officials said at the time that most of the fire escapes in the building had been locked or chained closed that night, making the blaze even deadlier.

Many people jumped out of windows to escape the inferno, according to witnesses and health officials. Some said they had to throw their babies and children out, hoping they would be caught by people below.

It was one of the deadliest building fires worldwide in recent years.

The fire drew the world’s attention to downtown Johannesburg’s long-running problem with ‘hijacked’ buildings [File: Michele Spatari/AFP]

‘Hijacked’ building

In the aftermath of the fire, a commission of inquiry was established to investigate the tragedy.

During a hearing of the inquiry on Tuesday, the suspect – who spoke as a witness – admitted to his involvement in starting the fire, local media reported.

The suspect said he had started a fire in the crowded housing block to cover up a murder he had committed, which triggered the bigger blaze, South Africa’s Eyewitness News reported.

Andy Chinnah, a rights activist with Amnesty International who was present at the inquiry, told the AFP news agency that the man confessed to being a drug user who had befriended a dealer in the building.

The man reportedly said he was high on drugs at the time the fire was started, and only later realised the extent of the blaze.

He also broke down in tears when telling the inquiry about his actions on the night of the fire, witnesses said.

According to Eyewitness News, the inquiry’s evidence leader said the statements made by the man before the inquiry may not necessarily be admissible against him in court.

The man also testified that the building was a haven of criminality and was effectively run by drug dealers.

The fire drew the world’s attention to downtown Johannesburg’s long-running problem with “hijacked” buildings, structures that have become rundown and taken over by criminal groups who charge fees for staying there.

There are hundreds of such buildings in the old centre of the city, officials say.

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