Friday Briefing: A Deadly Fire in South Africa

At least 74 people, including a dozen children, died yesterday in a fire in Johannesburg that tore through a building where squatters lived, city officials said. It was one of the deadliest residential fires in South Africa’s history.

My colleague Lynsey Chutel, who covers Johannesburg, arrived at the scene shortly after the fire broke out. “There was a real sense of chaos,” she said. “You could see people sitting on the sidewalk looking confused, looking helpless.”

A Johannesburg city councilman, who oversees public safety, said that when he arrived at the building, people were jumping out of windows to escape. (See why the apartment was a firetrap.)

The building, once a government checkpoint for Black workers during apartheid, was most recently a women’s shelter, before the nonprofit organization that ran it ended its operations there. The building is one of many that are abandoned in Johannesburg and that have been hijacked by criminal gangs, who collect rent but don’t provide any services, turning them into vertical slums, Lynsey said.

President Cyril Ramaphosa visited the site of the fire yesterday and vowed to crack down on such criminals. “It’s a wake-up call for us to begin to address the situation of housing in the inner city,” he said.

The fire is a vivid illustration of a political crisis that has resulted in a severe lack of affordable housing in Johannesburg.

Lynsey visited the building in May, while reporting on the chaotic state of the city, and found piles of trash and wires hanging from the building. “This was a tinderbox,” she told me.

“There have been more and more episodes like this in the city because of the political paralysis, because of years of corruption, and Johannesburg seems to be falling apart,” she said.

“You feel it when you walk in the streets,” Lynsey added. “The city has been let down over the last few years. There’s a real sadness and a sense of frustration.”

The world braced for a human rights nightmare in Afghanistan after the U.S. left the country to Taliban rule two years ago. According to international observers, that has come true, with the government carrying out revenge killings, torture and abductions, as well as denying jobs and education to Afghan women.

But aspects of Taliban rule have modestly surprised some U.S. officials. Taliban leaders have met President Biden’s top priority for the country — counterterrorism. The Taliban have helped to hold back Al Qaeda, while also battling a local branch of the Islamic State.

Still, that has not been enough to persuade Biden to restore any U.S. support to the country. Some officials and analysts remain deeply mistrustful, fearing that the Taliban are merely containing Al Qaeda in the short term to avoid provoking the U.S.

China has mounted a campaign to spread disinformation about the safety of Japan’s release of treated radioactive water — which the Chinese government has referred to as “nuclear-contaminated wastewater” — from the ruined Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant into the ocean.

Scientists have said that Japan’s release of water would have a very low effect on human health or the environment. But according to a tech start-up that helps counter disinformation, social media posts mentioning Fukushima by Chinese state media, officials or pro-China influencers have increased by a factor of 15 since the beginning of the year. Experts say China is seeking to sow doubts about Japan’s credibility.

The number of people sentenced to death in the U.S. each year has declined over the past two decades, but the prisoners on death row languish there far longer, up to 20 years.

To cope with the isolation, the prisoners spend time in search of escape, something to ease the racing thoughts or the crushing regrets. For a group of men on death row in Texas, the fantasy game Dungeons & Dragons has become a lifeline.

We live in an era of many peaks. If commentators have it right, we have reached peak TV, peak avocado, peak fish — even peak peak. Now China is getting the peak treatment in political science circles and the news media.

“Peak China” refers to the hotly debated concept that China has reached the height of its economic power. The term began making its way into headlines in 2021 and has been widely adopted in academic debates about the trajectory that China will take.

But Ian Bremmer, founder of the Eurasia Group, a political risk consulting company, says he believes that the concept that China’s best days are behind it is “ideologically freighted” and that it’s premature to use the phrase. The debate continues.

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