Pastor’s Corner for the Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, by Fr. Bruce Botha SJ

On the 31st of August a five-storey building in downtown Johannesburg burnt down. 77 people died and 86 were injured. Most of the dead are yet to be identified and claimed by their families. It can be easy for us to blame the victims who were possibly in the country illegally and were occupying a hijacked building. Blaming the victim can then lead us to absolving ourselves of all responsibility for the conditions that made this disaster possible.


For a start, there are 643 abandoned and hijacked buildings in Johannesburg. Syndicates, thugs, and gangs of criminals have identified abandoned buildings and have occupied them, “renting” space to desperate people with little to no other options. These residents live in appalling conditions, with no electricity or running water. I have not heard of action being taken by the city, building owners or police against these criminals. We then need to hold building owners and the city accountable for their role in creating the conditions which led to the disaster.


I have also heard important figures within political parties and the JHB Metro administration blaming NGO’s and even the constitution of the country for their own lack of action and failures. The constitution mandates that we treat every person within South Africa with dignity, whether they are South Africans, refugees, legal or illegal immigrants. It is the responsibility of civil society, including us in the Church, to remind those with power of this fact, this truth.


It Is the responsibility of the government to ensure the integrity of our borders, to ensure that if someone has entered the country illegally, they are treated justly and humanely while waiting to be repatriated. It is the responsibility of government at all levels to ensure that corruption does not taint the work of those responsible for border security, policing, and the administration of the visa process. It is the responsibility of city and state to ensure that they have laws and policies in place which will help them to do their work better.


In this disaster let’s avoid blaming the victims, those who are simply trying to make a better life for themselves and their families. There have been multiple failures at all levels of governance which have contributed to this situation. We need to ensure that disasters like this do not happen again by holding building owners, city, and state accountable for their failures.


In this disaster, there may be seeds of new life if we use this as a wake-up call to “be” and “do” better. If all of the abandoned buildings in JHB were taken over by the city, in processes which would be both constitutional and legal, they could turn them into “RDP” homes which would go a long way to addressing the dire shortage of affordable low-income housing close to the city.



Fr. Bruce Botha SJ