Lynsey Chutel

The apartment complex in Johannesburg in May.Credit…Joao Silva/The New York Times
Credit…Joao Silva/The New York Times
Credit…Joao Silva/The New York Times

The Johannesburg building where the deadly fire occurred on Thursday was one of several places that journalists for The New York Times visited in May while reporting for an article about the chaotic state of the city, South Africa’s most populous.

Residents of an apartment complex across the street described the building, which was once an apartheid government checkpoint for Black workers, as a nightmare. It had become a huge squatter camp in a city that is in the grip of a housing crisis.

People in the neighboring complex said they heard screams at night, and sounds that they thought could be gunfire or fireworks. Cars had been stolen from their side of the street, only to be found hidden on the other side of the building where the fire broke out on Thursday.

Pickpockets and thieves would target visitors and disappear into the squalid building, impossible to find, the neighbors said. Drug dealers hung around outside. In the courtyard, corrugated iron shacks had sprung up. Last year, a woman was thrown from the fourth floor of the building, several residents said.

When The Times visited, trash sagged out of second-floor windows. Another pile of trash, at least three feet high, partially blocked the entrance. A street vendor, balancing a crate of oranges on her head, skirted by the trash heap as she entered the building.

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