Screws tight­ened

Finweek English Edition - - Cover Story -

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.’’

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