Walking past the old Presbyterian Church in downtown Johannesburg is an assault on the senses.

Wet sewage seeps onto the sidewalk near the building’s permanently bolted wooden doors. Many of its windows are broken, and clothes left to dry inside empty frames. There are no hymns to be sung here.

Many people, both men and women, are said to be living inside, without any access to water or electricity. One resident, who claims to have been a professional boxer, says he has been staying at the church for 21 years.

To use local terminology, this building has been “hijacked”.

It’s one of hundreds of homes in Johannesburg, where high rates of extreme poverty and a lack of social housing have pushed homeless people to occupy empty – and often unsafe – properties across the city.

The phenomenon came to the fore late last month after 77 people were killed inside a late-night fire that destroyed a five-storey building in the central business district.

Authorities said the victims were homeless and were using the property as an “informal settlement.” Eyewitnesses saw people throwing children from the burning building in an attempt to save them, and at least one man jumped to his death.

“random camps”

“I have long predicted that there would be a fire with a significant loss of life in Johannesburg,” said local architect Heather Dodds, who is designing social housing units in the city centre.

“This is due to the number of abandoned, inhabited buildings with no escape, locked doors, and no firefighting equipment, with people cooking indoors using stoves or even opening fires and using candles for lighting.

“These structures are essentially informal camps, informal settlements inside buildings.”

According to a local government source, approximately 200 large buildings and 250 private residences were hijacked, most of them located in the poor and run-down northern suburbs of Johannesburg.

These properties have been claimed over several decades by criminals and opportunists looking to make quick money. They did so at the expense of the building’s actual owners, the wealthy and socially minded, who sought to develop affordable rental places with minimal investment or housing for the poor.

The hijacked building is usually divided into so-called rooms using cardboard, scrap metal or old discarded building materials, leaving enough space for a single bed and a small table.

The kidnappers separate the men and women in the building because they do not want people to share. Families are rare sights.

Plastic bags as toilets

Most of these buildings have no electricity or running water. Residents use plastic bags as toilets, throw them out of windows, and cook food using open flames. Only those who have some kind of income will have a single plate gas stove.

On those properties without water, squatters break municipal pipes outside the building to wash their clothes. Local residents say it could take weeks to repair the pipes because city water department officials are afraid of residents.

These are intolerant and unwelcoming places, full of tension and civil unrest – especially in the wake of last month’s fire.

When The Telegraph visited the city center area this week to explore a series of hijacked buildings, reporters were joined by Belinda Kaiser-Echiozunguku, a local councilor from the Democratic Alliance, South Africa’s main opposition party.

Even then, entry into the properties proved impossible. Since the fire, the kidnappers have restricted access to only those who pay rent.

As she walked through the streets of downtown Johannesburg, pointing out the obvious dangers of hijacked buildings, Ms Kaiser-Echiozunguku accused the government of turning a blind eye to the issue.

“The ANC has been in power since 1994 and has failed all those years to maintain infrastructure and watched the city turn into the slums we see today,” she said. “There are laws (supposed to prevent kidnapping) but they are not enforced.”

It remains to be seen whether the latest tragedy motivates politicians to address the “kidnapping” phenomenon in Johannesburg. The costs involved certainly indicate that it will not be an easy task.

Angela Rivers, director of the Johannesburg Property Owners and Managers Association, said buying and renovating a hijacked building costs up to £1 million, and a comprehensive redevelopment typically takes at least two years – “if you’re lucky”.

Remington House

One of Johannesburg’s most famous high-rise buildings is Remington House, a 13-storey high-rise located near the city centre.

It was taken over by kidnappers more than 20 years ago and has no water. At least half the floors inside the building are constantly covered in sewage, and all of its balconies and fire escape doors were removed years ago.

“This is the most dangerous building, it’s going to take hard work and energy to take it over. It’s going to cost real money and commitment from the city,” Ms. Rivers said.

For residents of hijacked buildings in Johannesburg, the fire that killed 77 people last month was a painful reminder of their vulnerability. And no one knows where hell might strike next.

No wonder so many are now desperate to move on. “We came to work,” said a Malawian man from Lilongwe, as he stood outside an abandoned building. “But there’s nothing here for us.”

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    (tags for translation) Johannesburg 

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