Mr Mayor – keep your promise

Misdeed: Elkana Matshidza and his son Andani have run this Engen station in Soweto since 1994, but the City of Johannesburg has given them the run-around. Photo: Oupa Nkosi

Misdeed: Elkana Matshidza and his son Andani have run this Engen station in Soweto since 1994, but the City of Johannesburg has given them the run-around. Photo: Oupa Nkosi

It was in the run-up to the 2010 World Cup that Engen proposed sinking R14-million into upgrading a petrol station just off the main road in Meadowlands, Soweto.

Instead of facing the residential homes of zone nine, the front of the station would face Van Onselen Road. Drivers would no longer have to struggle to navigate one-ways and convoluted residential roads to get to the station — they would enter and exit with ease from the main road. The old pumps and crumbling structure would be a thing of the past.

The little grocery store, where cashiers behind locked gates sell goods through steel bars, would instead be a Quickshop with goods on display. The existing staff complement of 30 would grow exponentially with the upgrade.

But it never happened. For Elkana Matshidza, who has run the station for more than 22 years, this vision grows increasingly unattainable as the years pass by.

In 1994, two Engen garages on either side of the main road cutting through Meadowlands were abandoned by the original operator. Matshidza and his sister saw an opportunity and took the gap, agreeing with the oil company that they would run the two businesses.

In 2003, Matshidza said he received a letter from Engen to say the company would not renew its lease for the property and said he could negotiate his own lease with, or even apply for the title deeds from, the municipality.

Fourteen years have passed, but without the title deeds or even a long-term lease, Engen will not invest in the business and banks won’t provide financing without sufficient security.

“If this place were on a lease of 20 years, or if I had a title deed, Engen would move in here anytime and spend any amount of money, but what guarantee do they have that we will be here tomorrow,” said Matshidza, as a taxi rattles loudly into the station.

“What guarantee do we have?” asked his 29-year-old son, Andani, who has taken over day-to-day operating of the business.

The stations’ maintenance must be done out of the company profits, said Andani, and he points out the many places where he has patched up the structure.

“I’m still in the process of trying to get us to the point where we are insurable ... it’s too high risk,” he said.

His father added: “Outsurance came here and said ‘we can’t insure it today and tomorrow it has fallen down’.”

The Johannesburg Property Company (JPC), which manages the property on behalf of the city, was not interested in looking at an offer to purchase, Matshidza said. Instead it wants to put the lease out to tender.

“For the past six years, they have been throwing that in our face,” said Andani.

Matshidza added: “What is it that they can do better than me that has been here 22 years? I have a backer of R14-million. So now I’m deliberately disadvantaged.”

The Matshidzas have grown justifiably sceptical of promises that a title deed to the property will one day be theirs.

Newly elected Jo’burg mayor Herman Mashaba is the latest in a string of politicians promising to transfer title deeds to Soweto businesses. A year ago, while on the campaign trail, he promised that, if elected, he would get people their title deeds.

During a visit to a business complex in Dobsonville, Soweto, he said: “What I am saying to the people of Soweto is that overnight we will ensure that people actually get title deeds to these properties because these properties belong to them.”

But now, almost six months since his election, this has not happened — at least not for businesses.

The director of mayoral communications, Tony Taverna-Turisan, says the city has already processed 2 000 title deeds, which are being handed over to beneficiaries, some of whom have been waiting for decades to own their own homes.

“The handover of title deeds is a top priority of this administration, especially given the chronic legacy of a failure to do so in this city. In the 2013-2014 financial year, the City of Jo’burg failed to hand out a single title deed,” he said.

But for small and medium enterprises, Matshidza said the government has good intentions but it doesn’t come to the party.

Leon Louw, cofounder of the Free Market Foundation, which initiated the Khaya Lam land reform project that has granted 1 000 title deeds to date, said: “In these areas which used to be townships, there is very seldom a clean title — a simple, old-fashioned freehold title and that one can do what they like with it.”

There are co-ordinated efforts on the residential side to have people receive title deeds, and those are a struggle. On the business side, it becomes increasingly more complex.

Louw said the difficulty is that the property is often worth a lot. “Local government is collecting a lot of rent from it and don’t simply want to give it away. To declare someone the lucky owner of a property worth a few million, there would be concern about someone being enriched too generously.”

In the Matshidza family’s case, deeds office data set the value of the property at R8-million in 2008.

Louw suggest a clean sweep of awarding title deeds to the existing occupants of such properties.

Otherwise there’s an endless list of excuses not to transfer title, he said. “It’s an infinitely complex and insoluble game of trying to deal with each property on its merits. It can’t be done, can never be done. There are about 10-million plots of land in areas like Soweto, where it is a massive stew, a mish-mash of unfathomable scrambled egg,” he said.

“We understand all the problems. If you simply declare the occupier the owner, it results in all sorts of enrichments and impoverishments … But the problem of not doing it is you will never solve the problem. Let’s just get on with it. Let’s get it done.”

The other big question is zoning for business. “Traditionally black areas were typically unzoned. By and large, they don’t have town-planning schemes. In the absence of town planning, one can get consent use.

“That involved lawyers, town planners and lodging tons of applications. Sometimes this can go on for 10 years and it still never happens.

“They [businesses] invest money and run a successful business yet they have no idea if they are going to be allowed to be there tomorrow. These are the real heroes of society,” Louw said.

Helen Botes, the chief executive of the JPC, said Matshidza does not meet the criteria for a land regularisation matter under the Conversion of Certain Rights to Leasehold Act of 1998.

“To qualify for land regularisation as per the Act there must be a permit in place and the recipient must be the leaseholder,” Botes said.

A lease was entered into with other tenants over the years — Fanny Maria Mokoena (Matshidza’s sister) and the Andani Family Trust (the Matshidza family trust).

Botes said, in accordance with council’s supply chain management policy for land and the Municipal Finance Management Act regulations, all property must first be assessed to determine whether it is required for the delivery of municipal services.

“If the properties are not required, the properties may be placed on public tender for all interested parties to participate.”

She said the Meadowlands property is scheduled to be released on public tender in the next six months once council approval has been received.

Taverna-Turisan said: “The story of Mr Elkana Matshidza is the story of far too many residents in our city and it is essential that we find long-term solutions to assisting our people and provide them with economic opportunities to better their lives and at the same time grow our economy and become employers of our people. We are faced with many challenges as the new administration in this city. However, we remain committed to ensuring that the handover of title deeds remains a top priority and is expedited.”

The mayor’s office said Mashaba is confident that the proposed reintegration of the JPC and other city entities, such as Johannesburg Water and Pikitup, with the city will help to resolve serious challenges.

Lisa Steyn

Lisa Steyn

Lisa Steyn is a business reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She holds a master's degree in journalism and media studies from Wits University. Her areas of interest range from energy and mining to financial services and telecommunication. When she is not poring over annual reports, Lisa can usually be found pottering about the kitchen. Read more from Lisa Steyn

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