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Arsonist fans flames in Joburg suburbs

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A serial arsonist has been terrorising Johannesburg’s northern suburbs, and members of the Jewish community fear for their safety.

This predator watches his victims before invading their homes in the early hours of the morning. He often eats, drinks, and even cooks in their homes. He has urinated in bins and defecated on floors. He’s a loner who likes fruit, and seems to hate those with privilege. He’s athletic, dresses smartly, and may even have a car. He’s not known to steal.

Instead, after taking his time, he sets homes alight. He will often start with the couches or mattresses, and once set a bunch of teddy bears on fire. He’s known to add an accelerant, and watch as people desperately try to put out the flames.

It sounds like something from a horror movie, but this serial arsonist is preying on upmarket homes in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg, especially in Hyde Park, Houghton, Oaklands, Benmore Gardens, Illovo, and Craighall Park.

Many of the homes lie within a 0.5km radius of each other. The central point is where Jan Smuts Avenue becomes William Nicol Drive. Most of the arsonist’s trail of destruction is within 2km of that point.

“My family and I have had trauma counselling and cancelled our holiday after our neighbours’ home was set alight,” says advocate Stanley Pincus SC, after a house in Oaklands was burned last week.

The arsonist roamed the area for three nights. In the early hours of Monday, 25 April, he chose his target. Pincus and his family were woken to “flames, glass shattering, horrible smoke, and screams”.

Somehow, their neighbours – a couple and their dogs – managed to escape. When Pincus’ son-in-law saw the neighbour running outside in just a pair of shorts, he gave him his shirt. “Rooms are completely destroyed. The TVs melted. On Monday, I didn’t even go to work – we’re all very shaken,” says Pincus.

The arsonist’s crimes may have begun two years ago, and there may have been at least 14 incidents. But they made the news only recently after a Johannesburg resident highlighted her suspicions on Facebook. CCTV cameras have captured images of a slim, confident, clean-shaven man with a dark complexion, who is possibly in his mid-20s.

Residents fear that he’s getting more dangerous. In early April, he beat up an elderly man before locking him in a room and setting his house alight. He was saved by a security guard, but remains in hospital on a ventilator.

A Jewish resident who asked not be identified says that in the middle of last year, the alleged arsonist set her neighbours’ house alight. The neighbours were away at the time. “At 23:45, I took my dog out and noticed a car parked on the grass outside. When I came back, it had disappeared. Then at 05:00, I heard sirens. The neighbours’ house was engulfed in flames.

“A brick had been thrown through the window,” she says. “Later, I remembered the car, and looked on our CCTV cameras. We saw him driving up and down the road, parking on my grass, and going towards the neighbours. He sauntered over there – totally relaxed! He took nothing. He just wanted to burn the house down.”

Near the end of 2021, the alleged arsonist beat up an elderly couple, locked them in a room, and set their home alight. They were saved by neighbours who pulled them through a window.

Andre Snyman is the founder of eblockwatch, a community crime-fighting communication system. He knows the couple, and says they were admitted to hospital. After being discharged, they didn’t even go home, they went straight to the airport and left the country.

Snyman has since led the charge to catch the alleged arsonist. He says that in each case, people have saved victims, but it could have been so much worse. In one instance, children were in the house.

He says there was some pushback from people who didn’t want the news of a serial arsonist out in the open, mainly because it could affect property values. However, when people started getting hurt, Snyman felt he had to speak up. He’s now working closely with security companies including Fidelity Security Services, which is offering a reward of R100 000 for any information. Its tip-off line is 083 939 0300.

“He’s now pushing the envelope. In the most recent fire, he cut the hose pipe. He may be out to kill,” says Snyman, pointing out that it’s important to share information as soon as possible. For example, if a fire has just started, the arsonist may still be in the area.

Another resident described the arsonist as a “sociopath” who was seen drinking cider on her roof before setting her home alight. That was after he opened a jar of sundried tomatoes and smeared them on the curtains.

Many of the homes are in Ward 90. Councillor for this ward, Martin Williams, says, “In December, when I raised the alleged arsonist issue with the City of Johannesburg’s acting divisional chief of fire safety and research, I received a list of criteria that must be present before arson could be confirmed.

“In response to a further request to the city, in mid-January, I received a spreadsheet which didn’t reflect what was being reported on social media. On 5 April, Colonel Owen King, South African Police Services (SAPS) station commander for Bramley, which covers some of the suburbs, said, ‘Since 1 January 2021, to date I have received three arson cases. One in Illovo, one in Hyde Park, and one in Marlboro Gardens.’

“Again, this didn’t reflect the stories circulating,” says Williams. “King has since said the police would set up a team to investigate. One problem is that there doesn’t seem to be central database on alleged arson attacks.”

Sean Jammy, chief operating officer of CAP Security, says, “CAP was first made aware of an incident that matched this criminal’s modus operandi in Illovo in July 2021. Our team has been relentlessly collecting information on all incidents since then and feeding back to affected communities. We’re working with the SAPS on a high level to build a profile of the perpetrator and apprehend him.

“The criminal responsible for these arson incidents is an African male who operates alone. He appears to have an understanding of suburban homes, and is able to move between properties, evading electric fences and scaling walls.

“Ensure that you have an alarm system with good exterior detection and when it triggers, get your armed-response company to do a thorough inspection; be alert to suspicious activity – dogs that are uneasy, or strange noises; install fire and heat detection in each living space; and ensure that you have adequate fire extinguishing tools,” he says.

“Should you need assistance in ensuring your home is fire safe, reach out to us on info@zaka.org.za,” says ZAKA Fire Unit spokesperson Kayla Ginsberg.

The SA Jewish Report reached out to various SAPS officers, the City of Johannesburg spokesperson, and the city’s acting divisional chief of fire safety, but they all chose not to comment.

In an emergency, contact ZAKA Fire Unit’s control room on 086 18 000 18.

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