/ 13 May 2020

Online campaign advocates for tenants’ rights during the lockdown

Of the remaining 4 000 houses
The immediate danger of becoming homeless is more urgent than worrying about contracting the coronavirus.

Elvin Meyer has taken the 10km round-trip walk from his home to the Mfuleni police station several times this week. 

He hardly has time to sit and gather his thoughts. 

If he’s not trying to save his family from eviction, he’s trying to negotiate with his employer about when he can return to work. 

Meyer works as a painter for a construction company. During the lockdown, he has not been so lucky with work. In fact, he has not been working since two weeks before lockdown. The last time he was able to pay rent was in the middle of March — and that was for February’s late payment.

His landlady has already visited him to demand payment. When he said he was unable to pay, she tried to evict him.

“I told her my story — that work has dried up during lockdown. And that I also knew my rights; that she couldn’t simply evict us. So she made life very hard for us during the last few weeks,” Meyer said. 

Because he could not pay, the landlord removed the prepaid-electricity box from their unit, meaning the family is currently without power.

At some point, Meyer said the landlord allowed another family to move into their small RDP house — while they were still inside. But the Meyer family refused to budge.

“I’ve been to the police. They’ve come around to this yard. They don’t seem to know what to do. All they can tell the landlord [is] that she’s not allowed to evict us. Nothing about electricity. Nothing about the other family [who] was moved in.”

Meyer said he has had to give up work that became available: out of fear for his family, he decided not to take it on. 

“With level four, our company got a job in Knysna. Someone organised me a permit to travel. But I said no. I needed the money, but I couldn’t leave my family alone here. I don’t know what these people would do.”

Impending homelessness

Meyer’s story is not unique. Elzane Hendricks, 45, shares a modest RDP house with her two children. Her daughter is 17 and in grade 11. Her son is 22. None of them work.

But they’ve always managed to get by, scrounging enough money from odd jobs and hustling to pay their rent. It’s her most important expense: to ensure they have a roof over their heads.

But her landlady still said she must leave. The house had been sold, and the tenants must move out. 

“Our landlady came to us, just before lockdown, to say she has sold the house. But I told her lockdown was coming and can’t she give us some time,” Hendricks said. “But she insisted the house is sold and that we must move out.”

Hendricks is supposed to move out of her home this weekend. She doesn’t know where to go with her children. One thing she does know is that it is against lockdown regulations for her to be evicted. 

“This landlady doesn’t appear to understand that. I hear her phone was stolen, and that she will come to us at the weekend. But I know she can do nothing to us, because of the lockdown. If she comes, and wants us out, then I’m going to the police,” she said. 

Hendricks said the immediate danger of becoming homeless is more urgent than worrying about contracting the coronavirus.

Protecting tenants’ rights 

The Rent Strike South Africa campaign is primarily an online social-media project that provides educational material about the rights of tenants during the lockdown.

On its Facebook page, the group has about 14 000 interactions with people from almost every socioeconomic stratum asking for assistance about what to do when the landlord comes knocking. 

“We are working in particularly poorer communities where people are paying rent. People are complaining that landlords want their money, but most of the people are not working. It has become violent in some communities,” said Kashiefa Achmat, chairperson of the People’s Housing Assembly and one of the organisers of Rent Strike SA. 

“We’ve seen some horrible behaviour by landlords, because they’re not able to evict people. They’re trying to make it unbearable: from cutting electricity to throwing dirty water on people’s floors. And the police aren’t doing anything,” she added. 

Achmat said as South Africa embarks on its risk-adjusted-strategy approach to lockdown, the situation will become even more dire for tenants.

Already, under level-four lockdown, courts can hear and consider applications, and pass judgements on applications for evictions — although these eviction orders may be exercised only after the lockdown ends. 

“Most of the people who post on the Facebook page are asking about their rights about not being able to pay rent to management agencies and banks. These institutions don’t take nonsense if you can’t pay. Yes, they may make an agreement with you, but what if you are already behind, and then you must still pay interest to them,” Achmat said. 

Achmat said the campaign should not be about creating an adversarial relationship between tenants and landlords, but building solidarity among lessees, lessors, and people repaying bonds to force the government to enforce an across-the-board payment freeze on bonds and rentals.

The campaign acknowledges that some banks and rental agencies are giving people some reprieve. But in light of what could be months of unpaid rent, there are fears tenants will be forced out when the lockdown is lifted. 

“Once this lockdown is over, then you are going to see a different story [about] how they are going to deal with people who are not paying their rent,” Achmat adds.

In his last address to the nation, President Cyril Ramaphosa had said the government would engage with banking institutions to provide payment holidays for people who qualify.