Orrin Singh25 January 2024 | 15:21

Ticking time bomb: Hijacked Nugget Street building was doomed to collapse or burn down

A failed high court eviction raised the alarm on structural and fire risks posed to the unlawful occupiers of the hijacked three-storey building in 2019 but fell on deaf ears.

Ticking time bomb: Hijacked Nugget Street building was doomed to collapse or burn down

The remains of a building at the corner of Nugget and Commissioner Street in Johannesburg following a fire on 21 January 2024. Picture: Jacques Nelles/Eyewitness News

JOHANNESBURG - Had the hijacked building on 44 Nugget Street not been set alight by a scorned woman, it was likely to catch fire or collapse due to its poor structural integrity and illegal electricity connections. 

These dangerous living conditions were brought to the attention of the court and the City of Joburg (CoJ) five years ago when an attempt was made to evict some 200 unlawful occupants from the premises by the building’s owners. 

A failed high court eviction raised the alarm on structural and fire risks posed to the unlawful occupiers of the hijacked three-storey building in 2019 but fell on deaf ears. 

And while the fire resulted from criminality, with one woman being arrested for starting the blaze, those involved in the case have cast blame on the city for their lack of will in assisting in the court case.  

On Sunday, two people were killed, four others injured and dozens rescued when the dilapidated building was allegedly set on fire by a woman, following a domestic dispute

The following day, City of Joburg Mayor Kabelo Gwamanda told the media the building was ownerless following a failed high court application to evict the unlawful occupants.

"The case was thrown out of court on the basis that the alleged building owners could not provide sufficient information that proves that they did own the building."

According to the title deeds and property transfer documents, which Eyewitness News has been furnished with, the building was purchased by Nigerian couple, Tony and Helen Mene-Akpata, and registered with the deeds office in 2012. 

Copy of Original Title Deed-44 Nugget Street, Jhb by Nica Schreuder on Scribd

The couple, who reside in London, according to their attorney, purchased the property from the company, Constitution Square (PTY) LTD, for R1.8 million. 

An application to have the unlawful occupants evicted from the premises was initiated in 2019 in the Johannesburg High Court. 

In July 2022, Judge Denise Fisher dismissed the application, citing certain irregularities, one being that eviction orders were only served on all of the illegal occupants.

Judgment by Nica Schreuder on Scribd

Attorney Cyril Thabela, representing the owners, said they did, however, serve the City of Joburg with the application in anticipation that the city would provide a comprehensive report addressing the building's safety, aiding the court in making a fair and informed decision. 

"The City of Johannesburg was also cited in the matter and served with the application. We assumed that they read the papers and they said they were not interested in defending the matter or present whatsoever, that it could before the court so that we could reach a reasonable conclusion in the matter, knowing exactly there were allegations that the building could collapse or catch fire at any time." 

But the city disputed this and claimed they were not served with the application.

The City of Joburg’s legal department said that even though the city was cited in the application, it was not served and could not be represented. 

CoJ spokesperson, Nthatisi Modingoane, said they would be approaching the court for a declaration order to declare the building unsafe.

Safety concerns were raised by Tony Mene-Akpata in his founding affidavit. 

"The property is likely to catch fire or collapse at any given moment due to the leaks and illegal connection of electricity." 

The City of Joburg were well aware that the building had been hijacked, as Thabela said they complied with cutting off the water and electricity supply upon instruction from the owners. 

Thabela has since served a letter of demand on the City of Joburg to cease disseminating misleading information to the public regarding the ownership status of 44 Nugget Street. 

He said his clients declined to be interviewed at this stage.

Letter of Demand to Coj-Tony and Helen Mene-Akpta by Nica Schreuder on Scribd

Siyabonga Mahlangu, secretary-general of Inner City Federation, an NPO that assists homeless people within the inner city, confirmed that they had assisted the occupants in opposing the eviction order. 

"We were hoping the city would play a major role in entertaining that application so that they can file a report to assist the court as to whether or not the issue of homelessness is going to be something that needs to be considered. But the city didn’t play any role, so for people to live on the street rather than living in such a building." 

On Monday, Gwamanda revealed that the city had recently won nine court cases pertaining to hijacked buildings within the inner city

"It is for the first time in the history of the city that we have taken an approach to follow processes so that we do not relegate to the initial point where we find the city being contested by NPOs and people being put back into these particular facilities. Now, we are working hand-in-hand with law enforcement and the courts to ensure firstly we have a legal standing to evacuate."

Meanwhile, the family of one of the victims, burnt beyond recognition, is waiting for DNA results of their son’s remains.

Sizwe Cele and his girlfriend were the only people who died in the Nugget Street building fire.

The woman accused of starting the blaze has been identified as Bonisiwe Gumede, who faces two counts of murder and a charge of arson. 

Gumede made her first appearance in the Johannesburg Magistrates Court on Tuesday

It’s alleged she ignited the fire following a lover’s quarrel. 

The media have been barred from filming proceedings in the interest of Gumede’s safety.

She is expected back in court next week. 

An investigation by Eyewitness News last year highlighted that there was not much recourse for property investors who had their buildings hijacked. 

This was due to a 2011 landmark Constitutional Court ruling referred to as the Blue Moonlight case.

In it, the Constitutional Court found that the City of Joburg could not evict occupants of a building without providing adequate temporary emergency accommodation (TEA). 

Thus, the ruling by the highest court in the land set a precedent in terms of how successful evictions could be carried out.

The ConCourt further noted that temporary emergency accommodation should be a location as near as possible to the area where the occupants currently reside, creating further complications in terms of space within the inner city.