On August 31, a building on Albert Street in the heart of the Johannesburg inner city caught fire. People living there, mostly impoverished foreign migrants from other African countries were trapped in the inferno, with 77 dying and many more still lying in hospitals suffering with life-threating burns and injuries. Others died or sustained serious injuries while jumping out of windows to escape the blaze.
Those who survived lost everything.
They have no home and have lost their possessions. They escaped with the clothes they were wearing. The building, owned by the City of Johannesburg and earmarked as a safe haven for women and children, was hijacked by criminals who rented it out to these desperate people, refugees who had fled their countries, including Tanzania, Malawi, and Zimbabwe, for a better life in South Africa.
Bare statistics and numbers do not adequately express the horror of the situation. Only when you sit down with the survivors and listen to their heart-wrenching stories, can you really understand the Albert Street tragedy.
Yesterday I had that opportunity. I joined the speaker of the Johannesburg City Council (JCC) and other interfaith leaders going to the scene of the disaster to offer our support to the survivors and to hear directly from them what they had been through and the challenges they are experiencing now. I literally sat down on the side of the road with groups of victims to hear their painful stories.
Although shelters have been established by the City of Johannesburg to accommodate those living in the building, the predominantly refugee community staying there is terrified to move for fear of being deported. With the pervasive anti-immigrant sentiment in South Africa, especially in the lead-up to the 2024 National elections, they have reason to be frightened. Anti-foreigner sentiment is a dominant campaign issue in South Africa. Xenophobia, or in our case Afrophobia is rife, an issue that bubbles to the surface regularly and explodes at the slightest provocation. It is a political minefield.
BUT FOR us in the Jewish community, we are not being drawn into this political battlefield, choosing rather to focus on the humanitarian crisis that has unfolded. As I engaged with the survivors of the Albert Street fire, I heard chilling stories that gave a face to the tragedy. One woman told us how she had thrown her week-old baby out the window onto a pile of rubbish, jumping out after her and in that way saving them both from the flames.
I embraced another woman, who tearfully told me how she had escaped, but her sister was lying with severe burns in the Helen Joseph Hospital. She was faced with the dilemma of whether to continue living on the streets or go to the shelter and risk being deported, despite assurances that this would not happen. Another woman expressed her fear that her possessions that were still in the burnt building, which they were not permitted to collect, would be stolen. She shared that they had witnessed a man walking out with a television set.
Others said they had heard that foreigners were not being treated well at the shelters.
JCC Speaker Colleen Makhubele listened attentively and arranged buses to take those on the streets to a shelter to see for themselves, with the understanding that they could return to Albert Street if they were not satisfied. A few people took up the offer. The others chose to remain where they were, including mothers with young babies and people with serious injuries sustained on that terrible night.
Tikkun Olam: A way of life for South African Jewry
For Jewish communities around the world, tikkun olam (repairing the world) is an important value. For SA Jewry it is a way of life. The SA Jewish Board of Deputies celebrates its 120th anniversary in November this year, and for the occasion will be producing a second edition of our book Jubuntu, a compilation of the many Jewish communal and nonprofit organizations established to uplift those in need around us.
The term Ubuntu is translated as “humanity” or “humanity toward others”; we coined the term Jubuntu as it demonstrates the values of Jewish humanity towards others.
We cannot have a thriving and dynamic Jewish community when others around us are struggling to survive. Most Jewish communal organizations have outreach arms and most Jewish community members likewise have some cause they support. There are no shortage of worthy causes in South Africa.
Through COVID, with the help of certain generous donors and some amazing fellow NGOs, we were able to provide relief to hundreds of thousands of people in all nine provinces, rural and urban areas, and focusing on vulnerable communities such as refugees and child or granny=headed households. We invested over R40 million during this difficult period, which literally saved lives.
What has been most remarkable however is our responses to disasters, which sadly have occurred too many times this year. On Christmas Day 2022, a gas tanker explosion in Boksburg next to Johannesburg killed 41 people. We helped repair the houses and old age homes that were damaged, ferried burn victims to the hospitals to have the dressings on their wounds changed, helped bereaved families find their loved ones in the mortuaries, and provided catering and assistance at the funerals.
One of the funerals was for a family who lost four siblings. An incredible social worker in our community provided trauma counseling.
In July another explosion, in Bree Street in the Johannesburg inner city caused a road to collapse. The SAJBD provided assistance to those whose homes were damaged.
Since August 31, the SAJBD has been working closely with the Johannesburg City Disaster Management, assessing the daily needs of those living in the shelters. We ensure that whatever aid we provide is directly in response to the needs. One day it was diapers, for which they gave us the exact sizes required, another day it was sanitary pads and large quantities of blankets. Just the other day, boilers and tubs for washing purposes were needed.
This makes me proud to be part of the SA Jewish community, not only because of its vibrancy and dynamism but mostly because of the care and hessed that it continues to display.
The writer is the national director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies.