A man was arrested on Tuesday and is facing 76 counts of murder after admitting to starting a deadly building fire in South Africa last year. The fire, which occurred in August in downtown Johannesburg, resulted in one of South Africa’s worst disasters, claiming the lives of 76 individuals.

The 29-year-old suspect, whose name was not disclosed, confessed to the crime during a public inquiry investigating the fire’s causes. According to reports, he stated that he had strangled a man on the orders of a Tanzanian drug dealer who resided in the building. Subsequently, he set fire to the victim’s body in an attempt to dispose of the evidence.

Following his testimony, the police arrested the suspect, who now faces additional charges, including 120 counts of attempted murder and arson. The suspect is expected to appear in court in Johannesburg soon, although the exact date has not been disclosed.

It is important to note that the inquiry is not a criminal proceeding, and the suspect’s confession was unexpected. The inquiry aims to determine the fire’s origin, as well as any safety shortcomings that may have contributed to the high death toll. The suspect, referred to as “Mr. X” by the media, was a resident of the building and testified at the inquiry as such.

The tragic incident shed light on the issue of “hijacked buildings” in downtown Johannesburg, which are rundown structures occupied by squatters due to neglect by authorities. The building where the fire occurred was owned by the city but was under the control of illegal landlords who rented out space to impoverished individuals, including many immigrants. The lack of intervention by authorities to address the illegal occupation of such buildings has sparked outrage in South Africa.

During his testimony, “Mr. X” described the building as a center of criminal activity, alleging that it was being operated by drug dealers. He also claimed that there were more bodies in the building’s basement before the fire, referring to it as a “slaughterhouse.”

The investigation into the fire was initiated by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who ordered the inquiry to uncover the circumstances surrounding the tragedy. The fire revealed significant safety issues in the building, including locked or chained fire escapes, which exacerbated the severity of the disaster. Many occupants were forced to jump from windows to escape the blaze, resulting in numerous injuries, including broken limbs and backs.

The tragic event has prompted a reevaluation of building safety and oversight in South Africa, particularly in addressing the challenges posed by hijacked buildings and ensuring the safety of occupants.

Piers Potter

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