Maboneng is a ‘haven’ built on evictions

Private developers use law enforcement to illegally harass low-income residents of Johannesburg’s inner city into leaving buildings that are often being purposely neglected.

“It’s like having a gated community in the middle of the city, but with security guards instead of gates,” says Ed Molopi, research and advocacy officer for Seri (the Socio-Economic Rights Institute), a public interest law centre one of whose key focuses is “securing a home”. Molopi notes that as developers buy and secure evictions from buildings, the stock of affordable inner-city rentals is shrinking. “Fortunately, there are still legal protections. [After a landmark 2011 Concourt ruling] the City must provide alternative accommodation as close as possible to people’s current location. But the perimeter of that ‘current location’ keeps on pushing further and further out.” 

Seri attorney Khululiwe Bhengu says a definite “Maboneng effect” is observable. “After Maboneng started, the focus of evictions moved [from suburbs like Yeoville and Berea] to the inner city. The processes were often illegal – without the occupiers’ knowledge and without complying with due process. There does seem to be a pattern in that area: developers would have secured or already refurbished an adjacent building. Then they try to clear the buildings around to raise the value of that one.”

And while both developers and impoverished residents live under the same law, Bhengu encounters frequent, flagrant breaches of it by the former. Developers must give notice of eviction to every tenant – “but often they just post one notice in the entrance, where anybody can rip it down”. The City has to be cited in the notice, and often it is not. And “information given to the court must accurately represent reality, but often they state a building is ‘unoccupied’ when it is very much occupied … or describe something as an ‘unlawful commercial occupation’ when people live and work there; at their [small] scale, living and working are indivisible”.

26 July 2019: Maboneng is known for its trendy hipster joints, but outside its gentrified cocoon, life goes on for the rest of the city’s residents.

She says the City can be as lax about meeting legal requirements as developers are. At 39 Davies Street (where three children were killed in April 2018 when an unsafe wall collapsed) Seri won the case for the residents, with costs, and the court ordered a roundtable meeting between owners and occupiers to work out a way forward. “That still hasn’t happened,” she says. 

The City often uses Section 13 (7) of the Saps Act to raid buildings: a public order power not intended for housing matters. Finally, the alternative accommodation provision is not working. “They have moved people into inadequate properties ‘temporarily’ – but the permanent never comes,” Bhengu notes, and the overburdened temporary housing then rapidly deteriorates.  

26 July 2019: Thobile Zondo, member of the Inner City Federation, walks through the streets of Maboneng.

Letting the buildings fall apart

That’s the situation of Freda Motshwane and Loyiso Sigaji, who were moved into the City’s Linatex House rehousing facility, opposite Jeppe Police Station, after a fire destroyed their previous home. “It was supposed to be for 14 days,” says Sigaji, “but it’s been five years. And now we fear that even this one, Maboneng’s going to take it.” 

The 1940s building has been refurbished, with painted walls and new communal toilet and washing facilities. But an unrepaired pump means that when New Frame saw it in late 2019, one half of the basement was waist-deep in water, with walls above already cold, damp and cracking. “We’ve asked for maintenance – even disaster relief, because the water is so deep – but they don’t maintain the building, they’re always ‘waiting for budget’… Maybe letting the building fail is their way of getting us out of here,” says Motshwane.

26 July 2019: Loyiso Sigaji and Freda Motshwane were moved to the Linatex House rehousing facility, opposite Jeppe Police Station, after a fire in their building.

In the City’s rhetoric, it is impoverished inner-city residents who are the law-breakers. Official slogans have shifted from “clean up the City” to “take back the City” – back allegedly from slumlords, building hijackers and, in the words of former Johannesburg Mayor Herman Mashaba’s infamous Tweet, migrants “bringing Ebolas in the name of small business”. But the rhetoric dates back beyond Mashaba. During the City’s 2013 “Operation Clean Sweep”, former mayor Amos Masondo declared: “You cannot use human rights to promote anarchy.”

Seri’s officers see a very different picture. “There isn’t a lot of affordable accommodation in the inner city, especially formal rental spaces,” points out Molopi. “When people need to be there … unaffordable private provision makes developing systems  – often highly disadvantageous systems – of informal rentals necessary. That is what the City often defines as ‘hijacking’.”

26 July 2019: A flooded basement at the Linatex House temporary rehousing facility.

Siyabonga Mahlangu, secretary of residents’ organisation the Inner City Federation, founded under Seri’s aegis, concurs. “The buildings are mostly not hijacked. Some tenants – in some buildings, a majority – have leases. Or people have occupied buildings, but not hijacked them. People aren’t paying rent, but are paying towards basic services. In buildings where our members are, they are often trying to maintain them. But they don’t have the money or the right equipment to do it.” Mahlangu says the City asked Mashaba to assist with renovations and make affordable arrangements with existing residents, but that he favoured encouraging “private companies to evict and offer the buildings to new, richer tenants”.

26 July 2019: Graffiti and gritty street life show another side to Maboneng life.

Crime exists in these places, says Molopi, “but we need to be looking at how to make life safe, for everybody – which is a state obligation – rather than criminalising everybody who is poor”. Informally rented buildings do often become unsafe, through illegal connections and fire risk. “To get services reconnected,” explains Bhengu, “tenants must pay 50% of a building’s historic services debt. If a building over time has accrued R4 million debt, that’s R2 million – that’s simply impossible for those residents.”

Or as Mahlangu explains, while residents are struggling to feed themselves “we can’t get electricity without documents, so people use open fire. And we can’t get water back without documents – without water, the fire destroys everything.”

26 July 2019: Sifiso Zuma, treasurer of the Inner City Federation.

Migrants and South Africans in the city

Activists say comments about migrants are irrelevant. Sifiso Zuma, treasurer of the Inner City Federation says overall only “a tiny percentage” of informal tenants come from outside South Africa. “Most of the people living in the inner city are South Africans. In any case, our Constitution says everybody is entitled to live decently – it shouldn’t matter.” 

Federation organiser Motshwane says: “We consider them our brothers and sisters; they are no different from us. Because you must see how nicely they treated our late president’s people so he could come home to us. When the City sends securities [security guards] looking for foreigners, it’s just an excuse. It’s harassment.”

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That is close to Bhengu’s assessment. “I don’t think it’s really about nationality – which, in any case is a Home Affairs matter. The City raided one building four times within a short period, allegedly looking for migrants. You force the same people out on to the streets in the cold early mornings four times? That, to me, looks suspiciously like constructive eviction.”

Nobody New Frame spoke to was unwilling to pay rent, or for safe, legal water and lights. But repeatedly they stressed these must be “affordable”. Affordable, however, seems to mean something very different to the City and the property developers it supports. 

This is the second in a four-part series examining the impact of privatised redevelopment on the lives of low-income residents of Johannesburg’s inner city.

Part one:

Part three:

Part four:

Amendment, 25 February 2020: Clarified that Amos Masondo was the former mayor of Johannesburg when he commented on “Operation Clean Sweep” in 2013.

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