Officials at the Central Methodist Church in the Joburg city centre believe that the fire at the building was the work of disgruntled members.
The church’s superintendent minister, Reverend Ndumiso Ncombo, said residents had set a room alight to spite church officials who gave them notice to move out.
“I wasn’t surprised when the fire started because the residents threatened to burn the building down when we gave them notice to move out,” he said. “We have opened a case of arson with the police.”
The fire last week Wednesday was started in one of the rooms, just a floor down from the church hall.
The small room where the fire was believed to have started lies in ruins, with clothes, groceries and broken glass from the shattered windows spread across the wet floor. Several large buckets, bottles and fire extinguishers lie outside the room.
After the fire was put out, residents were forced to evacuate the building.
The building, situated in the city centre, has acted as a haven for foreigners and destitute people who are desperate for a place to stay.
Since it opened its doors to the public almost 50 years ago, it has housed thousands of people at a time, especially during xenophobic flare-ups.
But now, the depilated building is a shadow of its former self. A strong stench of urine fills the graffiti-filled corridors and litter is spread across the broken floorboards. Makeshift housing structures are erected throughout the building, including on the staircases, in storage rooms and in the church hall where the thousands of residents once slept.
Ncombo said that although the sole reason for the mass evacuation was to renovate because the building was not safe to live in, the residents’ behaviour had also been a point of contention.
“We’ve found many of them selling and keeping large amounts of dagga and nyaope. They also used to vandalise the building; anything with steel or copper was stolen.”