South African police arrest suspect in connection with building fire that killed 77

Smoke rises from a burning building amid a deadly fire, in Johannesburg, South Africa, August 31, 2023, in this image obtained from social media. X/@odirileram/via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES. MANDATORY CREDIT

Smoke rises from the deadly fire in Johannesburg, South Africa, that broke out on August 31, 2023.odirileram/X/ReutersCNN — 

Police in Gauteng have arrested a suspect in connection with the fire that tore through a five-story building in central Johannesburg last year and killed 77 people, South African public broadcaster SABC reported Tuesday.

Gauteng police spokesperson Dimakatso Nevhuhlwi said the suspect was arrested after he confessed before the Commission of Inquiry into the building fire, and that the 29-year-old man will appear in court soon on charges of arson, 76 counts of murder and 120 counts of attempted murder, according to SABC.

The exact cause of the fire is “yet to be determined,” it added.

At least 12 children were among those killed in the blaze last year. More than 50 people were injured.

The fire affected some of the country’s most vulnerable people while also highlighting a long-standing problem regarding abandoned buildings in South Africa.

The blaze took place in what is known locally as a “hijacked building” – a property abandoned by landlords and taken over by gangs or other groups and leased out mostly to migrants and South Africans lacking the means to afford other forms of housing.

Workers seal off the perimeter of a burned apartment block in Johannesburg on September 6, 2023. At least 76 people including 12 children died as fire ripped through the five-storey building in the early hours on August 31, 2023. (Photo by Michele Spatari / AFP) (Photo by MICHELE SPATARI/AFP via Getty Images)

Workers seal off the perimeter of the burned apartment block in Johannesburg on September 6, 2023. More than 70 people, including 12 children, died as fire ripped through the five-story building on August 31, 2023.Michele Spatari/AFP/Getty Images

Hijacked buildings often fail to meet basic safety regulations. CNN reported at the time that local authorities said the apartments in the building, intended to house only two or three people, were partitioned into sleeping areas to accommodate multiple inhabitants.

While South Africa has seen fires devastate informal settlements before, the Johannesburg fire is widely seen as the worst in recent memory.

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