It was an important day for Khawulani Ntuli, who was impeccably dressed in a fitted brown corduroy jacket. On 23 October, Ntuli, 33, represented his fellow Rochester Mansions tenants at a Gauteng Rental Housing Tribunal hearing. As is often the case at the tribunal, Ntuli’s landlord, Urban Task Force (UTF), had legal representation.
The hearing centred on the complaints of Rochester tenants, but residents from a number of other inner-city buildings managed by UTF attended in solidarity.
Among them was Annah Mahlangu, 55, a long-time resident of Lynwood Court, which is adjacent to Rochester Mansions near Joubert Park in Johannesburg’s inner city. For Mahlangu, trimmed in pearl earrings and wearing a long, cream coat over a patterned dress and clutching a maroon handbag, showing solidarity was as important as the hearing itself.
But according to UTF’s lawyer, Michael Wellbeloved, this kind of solidarity exposed a “hidden agenda to cause discontent among tenants” in UTF buildings.
UTF is a managing agent responsible for a large portfolio of blocks of flats in and around the inner city, many of which are financed by TUHF Limited, a property development financing company that has pumped more than R4 billion into rental developments in Johannesburg’s inner city.
Forced into leases by desperation
Ntuli argued before the tribunal that the maintenance and services UTF tenants received was not commensurate with the rent they paid, which, in most cases, was in excess of R4 000. He claimed that tenants had been forced into their lease agreements through desperation.
The tribunal’s lead commissioner rebuffed Ntuli’s line of argument, however. She said: “We live in a constitutional democracy. You always have a choice. The lease is sacrosanct. The contract is sacrosanct. Signing is voluntary, nobody put a gun to your head.”
But research suggests desperation is a defining feature of Johannesburg’s inner-city rental market. For example, a report compiled in 2013 by the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa found that nearly half of the people living in the inner city cannot afford the cheapest available rental accommodation.
‘Our building is raining’
A major concern for tenants of both Rochester Mansions and Lynwood Court is the quality of their drinking water, which often runs brown from the tap. Lynwood tenants say this is the result of a borehole that UTF sunk in the alley between their building and Rochester.
But UTF’s head of compliance, Marc Ferguson, said the brown water had “nothing to do with the borehole”, which, according to him was not in use yet. Rather, he said, the discolouration was a result of a recent overhaul of Lynwood Court’s outdated piping system.
Ferguson, who feels City of Johannesburg Mayor Herman Mashaba has done “a great job” in the inner city since coming into office, told New Frame that UTF has been sinking boreholes at some of its buildings because “going forward, water is going to be a scarcity”.
The company is looking to tap into aquifers below the city’s surface to supplement its municipal supply. “We are about four years ahead of the curve [with this],” said Ferguson.
The National Water Act stipulates that the use of water from a borehole that exceeds domestic levels requires a licence. UTF was unable to provide New Frame with a copy of its licence for the Lynwood Court borehole.
But tenants were angry about more than their drinking water. They raised constant and heavy leaks running from the walls and ceilings of Lynwood Court as a key issue. New Frame has seen photographic and video evidence of these leaks. “Our building is raining heavily,” joked Mahlangu.
New Frame attempted to access both Rochester Mansions and Lynwood Court after being invited by tenants to observe their living conditions, but was denied access to the buildings by private security guards who had been called in by UTF.
Among the group of tenants are South Africans, Nigerians, Zimbabweans and Mozambicans. “We are not worried about Zimbabweans, or whatever,” said Ntuli of the group’s pan-African composition. “We are worried about everyone who resides in the inner city.” Bringing his fingers together in a gesture of unity, Slicker Dube, 49, reiterated: “We are intact.”
Like many of the UTF tenants, Ntuli organises in his spare time. He spends most of his time on cricket. He has a head and a joy for the game. An umpire with a level-3 qualification from Cricket South Africa, Ntuli has officiated at the Coca-Cola Khaya Majola U19 week, and hopes to start umpiring at university games soon.
Lynwood Court resident Beatrice Malungi, 36, who is a pre-primary school teacher in Bryanston, northern Johannesburg, uses her spare time for organising because she is able to “taste the sand inside the water” at Lynwood.
On 19 October, the tenants marched to UTF’s offices in Hillbrow under EFF banners. Malungi was among the incensed Lynwood Court tenants who assured New Frame that their organisation against UTF’s management practices is only beginning and that, if necessary, the march would be the first of many.