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Caught between eviction and dereliction

The fire in which 12 people died in Johannesburg’s CBD last week has highlighted the dangers faced daily by residents of the city’s numerous condemned buildings, who live without electricity or sanitation and are forced to cook on primus stoves and open fires.

”Unfortunately, 12 people lost their lives because they were living in premises which had very recently been illegally converted and were totally unsuitable for residential accommodation, with only two toilets and one entrance, and an emergency exit which was locked and blocked,” said Shaun O’Shea, a City of Johannesburg spokesperson.

Earlier this month, the Johannesburg High Court ruled that the city could no longer evict residents of derelict buildings unless they provided alternative accommodation.

Johannesburg Emergency Services divisional commander Malcolm Midgley says the judgement amounts to a catch-22 situation in which the city cannot enforce health and safety standards, but are called in to deal with the aftermath and watch the very people they have rescued return to the danger zone. This week’s fire occurred in a disused carpentry workshop that had been illegally converted into dormitories.

”As soon as the forensic team is done with the investigation, they are going to move back,” he said. ”When we went in there, we counted over 150 beds, and there’s no telling how many were sleeping on each bed. People are so desperate for houses they are willing to move back into buildings that are partially burnt.”

In a house in Joel Street, Berea, the people at the heart of the controversial ruling are still going about their lives. The double-storey house bears the scars of a fire 10 years ago, which gutted much of the top floor. Since then, the house has been subdivided into single rooms, each housing a family of up to four people in a space no bigger than the average suburban bathroom — and the backyard is filled with shacks. No one has running water or electricity and the rubbish is not collected.

Thobekile Mkhize (26) from Nkandla in rural KwaZulu-Natal came to Jo’burg to find work. She occasionally makes a few rands doing laundry in the neighbourhood. ”I live here because I don’t work and can’t afford to live anywhere else. At home, I can’t even get piece jobs. All I can do is sit around like a parcel waiting for food. We have children and have to raise them ourselves.” For several years, Mkhize paid rent for a one-room backyard shack, and then ”bought” it for R350 from her ”landlord” after he got shot and fled the area.

Bagezile Mzila, also from KwaZulu-Natal, has been living on the property for the past seven years. She lives in a three-square-metre room on the building’s ground floor with her husband, and makes a meagre living selling umqombothi. ”Business is good, I suppose, because the children back home are looked after and we eat at night,” she said.

They stay in the city because her husband has a job as a cleaner in a nearby block of flats. ”He found work recently, but it’s the first time in a while that he’s worked.”

The block of flats is typical of the inner city’s dilapidated buildings, where residents fall victim to building ”hijackers” who extort rent from them, despite having no legal entitlement to the properties. Mzila paid R400 a month to someone called George for several years. He did not pass on the rent to the owners or pay the council for water and electricity.

Whenever the electricity was cut off, George would illegally reconnect it and, by the time it was permanently disconnected, the municipality was owed R60 000 in arrears. Mzila and the other residents eventually stopped paying rent, demanding that the ”landlords” renovate the building.

A few blocks away is the 16-storey San José building, another of the properties involved in the case. It is a prime example of how long-term neglect and mismanagement see buildings decline rapidly until they are unfit for human habitation. The flats in the block were originally owned by white people who left the building as more black people moved into the area in the early 1990s. The building’s body corporate was dissolved in 1994 after running up substantial water, electricity and service debts.

A report entitled Any Room for the Poor? Forced Evictions in Johannesburg by the Wits Centre for Applied Legal Studies (Cals) and the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions outlines some of the circumstances that lead to the development of a ”sinkhole” building. The report suggests that rent and service agreements broke down as absentee landlords collected rent in cash from tenants, but failed to pass on service payments to the managing agents, who left the building in 1997. Electricity and water services were finally withdrawn in about 2003.

For San José residents such as Elizabeth Dzhivhuho and her neighbour Thobile Zondi, there is nowhere else to go. Like most of her neighbours, Dzhivhuho is unemployed and lives with her 17-year-old daughter. They survive on Dzhivhuho’s disability grant of R780 per month. She stopped paying rent in 2003.

Life is not easy in a high-rise city block with no running water and no electricity: ”It is people in great need that live here,” says Dzhivhuho. ”We must ask houses nearby for water and we fill up our tubs and take them back to our homes. We keep a bucket next to the toilet and pour water down when we want to flush.”

Residents are also at the mercy of gangs and thugs, and often have their meagre belongings destroyed or stolen. But, says Dzhivhuho, things have improved a little. An informal residents committee has taken on the role of maintaining the building and caring for its residents. ”They keep the place clean and help sort people out. We can go up and down the stairs at night with our candles and no one bothers us.”

The recent judgment means that residents such as Dzhivhuho can no longer be thrown out on to the street, but Jo’burg mayor Amos Masondo’s office is concerned about the ramifications this will have for the city, and is applying for leave to appeal. ”The City is of the opinion that the judgement has serious implications for the Inner City Regeneration Project, hence the appeal,” said Masondo’s spokesperson, Nkhensani Makhobela. The project is a driving force behind the mass evictions in problem buildings, which are earmarked for demolition or development by private entities.

Leader of the Democratic Alliance in the City of Johannesburg Mike Moriarty says the ruling will slow down the process of inner-city regeneration as investors are thinking ”more than twice” about getting involved in troubled areas such as Berea. But, he says, the city can take some lessons from the judgement — as regeneration and shelter for the poor are not mutually exclusive.

”The council can do far more in terms of temporary shelter for residents in these buildings. There are buildings available that can serve as temporary shelters and, in this way, the council can comply with the judge’s ruling and still allow for evictions,” he says. ”The council can deal with things swiftly if it has the political will to do so.”

Stuart Wilson, a researcher at Cals, believes that poor people are being removed to improve investor confidence in the city and that the evictions do not solve the problem, but merely displace it to other parts of the inner city. ”This has nothing to do with the health and safety of the tenants and everything to do with the regeneration of the CBD. The city should be coming up with alternatives instead of appealing the judgement,” he said.

Makhobela says ”the right to accommodation is as important as the right to safety and security. We do not believe the former is more important than the latter, they are equal.”

Mongezi Mnyani, spokesperson for Gauteng housing minister Nomvula Mokonyane, said efforts had been made to provide alternative accommodation and that the department’s call for landlords to register on the department’s database was met with a mixed response.

”We are conducting an audit of the buildings so we can see who’s running them. It includes the CBD, Hillbrow, Berea and Yeoville. Some of these buildings have no landlords and, once they are condemned, people keep moving in and out.”

He says social housing projects, of which there are more than 50 in Gauteng, are available to assist low-income families to access housing. Of the allotted housing, 70% is reserved for people who earn more than R3 500 a month; the remainder is for people who earn less than that.

What the judgement says

The City of Johannesburg v Rand Properties (Pty) Ltd and others: On March 3 2006, the high court ruled that the City of Johannesburg could not evict residents of condemned buildings without providing alternative accommodation.

Judge Mahommed Jajbhay ruled that the city had failed in its statutory and constitutional obligations to provide a suitable plan of action for rehousing inner-city residents, and prevented it from carrying out the evictions.

”Our Constitution obliges the State to act positively to ameliorate these conditions,” he said. In terms of Section 26 of the Constitution, all people have the right to access to adequate housing and the state must take reasonable measures to achieve the progressive realisation of this fact. ”We now require a coherent plan and the implementation of the plan at the micro level. The obligation is to provide access to adequate housing to those unable to support themselves and their dependents,” said Judge Jajbhay.

This means the city is obliged to come up with a plan of action to cater for the housing needs of impoverished people living in the city. The City of Johannesburg has applied for leave to appeal.

The Wits Law Clinic and Webber Wentzel Bowens Attorneys acted on behalf of the affected residents in three buildings. In taking on the City of Johannesburg, they argued that the procedure of evictions ignored residents’ rights to alternative accommodation and that the use of National Building Regulations and Building Standards Act 103 of 1977 was unconstitutional.

The city had been using the Act as the main legislative tool in evicting these residents, to allow for private development of the sites through the city’s Inner City Regeneration Strategy.

The strategy is an effort to raise and sustain private investment in the inner city. It includes: intensive urban management, particularly the improvement of basic services and law enforcement; upgrading and maintenance of infrastructure; discouraging abandoned, overcrowded or poorly maintained properties that hinder investment; and encouraging ”ripple effect” investments that will enhance the area.

”Once again, the City of Johannesburg is trying to use an apartheid-era law to clear the inner city of its poor, instead of finding viable and lawful solutions to their housing crisis,” commented Jean du Plessis of the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions.

”The judgement is more inclusive in its definition of people’s right to housing, it is not just the right to housing based on the idea of adequate shelter, it also allows for a person’s right to live near economic opportunity and the chance of employment, which is what the inner city offers to these residents,” said Stuart Wilson, of Cals.

”If the judgement is upheld, it will mean people cannot be evicted without alternative accommodation being offered in the area where they are living. This will encourage dialogue between the city and residents who live in similar conditions,” said Dr Jackie Dugard, head of the housing and basic service programme at Cals.


M&G Slow

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Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.
Lynley Donnelly
Lynley Donnelly
Lynley is a senior business reporter at the Mail & Guardian. But she has covered everything from social justice to general news to parliament - with the occasional segue into fashion and arts. She keeps coming to work because she loves stories, especially the kind that help people make sense of their world.

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