ALTHOUGH DOZENS OF buildings in Johannesburg’s Hillbrow, Berea, Joubert Park and Yeoville are still controlled by slumlords it appears the police, City Council and the courts are finally clamping down on building hijackers. The practice first reared its ugly head in the late Nineties, when crime syndicates would muscle their way into dilapidated or poorly managed buildings in Johannesburg’s inner city and force legitimate owners to abandon their properties.
Through intimidation and force, rentals would then be diverted to the hijackers’ pockets, often in collusion with corrupt city officials and police officers.
Andrew Schaefer, MD of inner city property management group Trafalgar, says until recently it had been an uphill battle for legitimate property owners to evict slumlords and their “strongmen” – because building hijackings were classified as civil and not criminal offences. As such, recovering a building from hijackers had to be conducted in a commercial court after following the formal eviction route, a time-consuming procedure that can take up to 18 months and cost hundreds of thousands of rand in legal fees and lost rental income. Schaefer says the situation has changed noticeably over recent months, with amendments to legislation now making hijacking a building a criminal offence.
In addition, a dedicated task team was established in August last year by the SA Police Force, the National Prosecuting Authority and Johannesburg city officials to help identify and eradicate building hijackers and so-called bad buildings in Johannesburg’s inner city. The task team has since made a number of arrests, with five suspected building hijackers currently being prosecuted in the Johannesburg Magistrates Court. Schaefer says that sends a strong message the relevant authorities are serious in eradicating this illegal practice.
Meanwhile, a landmark ruling recently handed down in the South Gauteng High Court is also expected to go a long way in protecting property owners against hijackers and other illegal occupants. The court ruled property owners no longer have to suffer losses while municipalities drag their feet in providing illegal occupiers with alternative accommodation. Instead, property owners are now entitled to an immediate eviction order. Moreover, the municipality will have to compensate property owners by paying a market-related rental until the eviction order is carried out.
That ruling arose from an application by a Johannesburg owner of a hijacked building to evict the illegal tenants of the building so it could be demolished and the site redeveloped.
Maurice Crespi, managing partner at Johannesburg law firm Schindlers Attorneys, says the judgment should be widely welcomed, as it provides much-needed protection to property owners who until now had little recourse for compensation of lost rental income when buildings had been hijacked or illegally occupied.
Says Crespi: “The ruling makes the Johannesburg Metropolitan Council responsible for the plight of illegal occupants they evict from buildings while also protecting the rights of property owners. The judgment deals a heavy blow to the Johannesburg Metro and could have future consequences for municipalities countrywide if the precedent is followed.’’