Joburg fire: Vigilance required to prevent inner-city decay

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JEREMY MAGGS: Ahead of the weekend and what should be a day of rebirth and renewal, the city of Johannesburg is mourning the over 70 people killed in the tragic inner-city fire. The tragedy has raised the question of the risk of dilapidated buildings in cities.

With us now is Volker von Widdern, who is risk principal at Riskonet Africa. So, Volker, first of all, how do phenomena like nodal shifts and urban decay, as we’ve witnessed, affect community spaces, and why is it becoming increasingly important then for communities to be extra vigilant about this?

VOLKER VON WIDDERN: I think the vigilance is something that arises because the change is initially so small that we miss it. Risk management is trying to be aware of what the conditions are, the areas where exposures may arise, not only now, but in the future. Nodal shift will happen because like a domino, one thing falls and then we don’t fully appreciate what the full effect of 20 dominoes falling may be because we haven’t done all of those evaluations.

We talk a lot about scenario planning in the same way. So for example, when the stock exchange moved out of the city of Joburg to Sandton, that is a trigger and we should think about that kind of thing.

Similarly, when the dynamics of the nature of buildings and/or maybe the use of industrial parks and things like that change for various structural reasons, those things happen over time, but we don’t often recognise the early signs of it.

So nodal shift and the impact on communities and so forth happens in a progressive way, but it has a cumulative impact and then unfortunately it has a catastrophic impact, sometimes like the tragedy of Johannesburg and obviously condolences to all the families.

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JEREMY MAGGS: Something, as you say, that we’ve just witnessed in the past 24 hours. In terms, Volker, of keeping that vigilance, I’m assuming it’s almost a multi-sectoral responsibility. It’s not just city government or provincial government or business in the area. Everyone needs to be aware of it.

VOLKER VON WIDDERN: Yes, and the reasons why, there could be risks and also ways in which collaboration and other plans can show the upside. For example, the Durban waterfront was going through a difficult period and then the combination of the commercial and the council, and so they decided to rehabilitate the waterfront and that became a much more attractive area, and it brought tourism back to that area.

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So you could have a whole lot of factors. You may have just a general issue where tourist sites in that case become more attractive elsewhere, and then you decide you’ve got to refresh your offering. The same happens to a shopping centre where new shopping centres are built, and older shopping centres become less popular. So those factors could come from a variety of areas.

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But overall, the combination of economic interest, developments, people’s living patterns, we obviously know about things like semigration and things like that.

There are multifactorial issues, but overall, if one’s aware of what the general and the consequential implications are, the classic forewarned is forearmed, and I think people can then be less exposed to these kinds of nodal shifts and issues that go with them.

JEREMY MAGGS: To the point that you were making about dominoes a little earlier, it maybe is worth revisiting the famous broken windows theory. It was first implemented in 1982, if I remember, and essentially social psychologists and police officers were saying that if a window in a building is broken and left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken. That in many ways is the metaphor that you are referring to. So it’s constant vigilance is the one thing, but it’s also constant maintenance, I guess.

VOLKER VON WIDDERN: Ja, so that broken window, absolutely and at a literal interpretation like that, I’d like to suggest that broken window applies to the failure of adherence to standards, and the standard would be we don’t want broken windows. That’s one standard. Obviously, in the tragedy and the knowledge of hijacked buildings, there is a standard.

Now, the critical standards would be law and order, evacuation of buildings, health and safety standards, water, lights, electricity, all of those things are standards.

So if there’s a failure of law and order, guess what? That’s not a small broken window and, of course, the consequential implications of that are massive.

So if you have a series of core standards like that and you decide that you’re preserving the environment and obviously, with socially conscious and respecting people’s needs for accommodation, then those issues can be solved. If the standards are abandoned and then you consider the broken window issue, it’s so much harder to then reinstate standards and get back to an effective and efficient provision of housing and management of a city environment because now trying to replace what has been stolen and the terrible infrastructure damage that’s been done is much worse than just repairing a broken window or repairing a standard.

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JEREMY MAGGS: Just a final question then. In the wake of this terrible tragedy, is there immediate action that the city can take?

VOLKER VON WIDDERN: Ja, the action would be a stocktake, what is the status of our buildings in town? That would sound utterly obvious, but of course, unfortunately we’ve had one boiled frog already because we’ve had 20 years of neglect or more and now we’ve had one tragedy. So what is the immediate action? Of course, the status of all the other buildings for which there are abandoned owners, hijacked landlords, crime syndicates and so forth.

Building fire leaves 73 people dead in downtown Johannesburg
Building fire leaves 73 people dead in downtown Johannesburg

The upside is that I was working in Johannesburg when it was very difficult to have a safe working environment both on the Selby side and the Harrison Street side, and it didn’t take a lot for the businesses around that area to have a community policing forum. There was a bobby on the beat on every corner and very quickly it became safe again.

People were happy to rent space in those areas and the area was rehabilitated. So the one is the stocktake and the second one is a combination of measures to rehabilitate that environment. It’s amazing how then commercial sense comes in, people are willing to pay for services and the environment is rehabilitated.

JEREMY MAGGS: I’m going to leave it there, Volker von Widdern, thank you very much indeed.

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