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Man ‘started South African building fire that killed 76 to get rid of another body’

The 29-year-old claims he strangled man on orders of drug dealer in shocking confession at inquiry

Rich Booth,Tara Cobham
Tuesday 23 January 2024 21:27 GMT
Deadly fire rages at multi-storey building in Johannesburg

A man has been arrested after he claimed responsibility for starting a building fire in South Africa that killed 76 people while trying to get rid of the body of someone he had killed on the orders of a drug dealer.

The 29-year-old man’s apparent confession came as a shock when he was testifying at an ongoing inquiry into the cause of the fire, which raged in an apartment building in downtown Johannesburg in August in what was one of the country’s worst disasters.

The man, whose identity was not disclosed, had said at the inquiry that he had killed another man on the night of the fire by beating him and strangling him, according to South African media reports of the testimony. He said he then poured gasoline on the man's body and set it alight with a match in the basement of the rundown apartment complex, according to the reports.

He testified that he was a drug user and was told to kill the man by a drug dealer who lived in the building.

Police said later on Tuesday that they had arrested a man in connection with the fire after he had confessed to being involved in the fire at the inquiry. The man was facing 76 counts of murder, 120 counts of attempted murder, and a charge of arson, police said in a statement.

Medics and emergency works at the scene of the deadly blaze in downtown Johannesburg in August (AP)

The inquiry he was testifying at is not a criminal proceeding and his confession came as a complete surprise. The inquiry is looking into what caused the fire and what safety failures might have resulted in so many people dying. He testified at the inquiry because he was a resident of the building.

The panel in charge of the inquiry ordered that he not be identified after his testimony and a lawyer leading the questioning of witnesses said that it could not be used against him because it was not a criminal proceeding.

South African media referred to him as "Mr. X" when reporting on his claim that he believed he caused the fire that ripped through the dilapidated five-story building in the Marshalltown district, killing at least 12 children, including one-year-old Robert Mulaudzi. More than 80 people were injured in the nighttime blaze.

South African police said that the man would appear in court soon but did not give a date.

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 squatters and are abandoned by authorities. There are hundreds of them in the old center of the city, officials say.

The city of Johannesburg owned the building, but it had been taken over by illegal landlords, who were renting out space to hundreds of poor people desperate for somewhere to live. Many of the building's occupants were immigrants suspected of being in South Africa illegally.

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

Emergency services officials at the time said 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 – some as high as three floors up – 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. Many of the injured suffered broken limbs and backs from jumping out the windows.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa ordered the inquiry into the disaster, which started in October by hearing testimony from emergency services personnel who responded to the fire in the early morning hours of 31 August.

Johannesburg's acting chief of emergency services testified at the inquiry last year that the building was a "ticking timebomb," because it was crowded with people living in wooden structures, while fire hoses and fire extinguishers had all been removed.

Police opened a criminal case in the days after the fire and declared the building a crime scene.

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