Shulana Court is a small, building in Yeoville close to Hillbrow. Seventy-odd year-old Aaron Mbatha, stayed there for over 20 years until he and all the other residents were thrown out. The Hawks descended on the building, searching for four members of the tenants’ committee. Just two were unfortunate to be at home at the time, but the police arrested all the residents.
The tenants were soon released while the two committee members remained in custody on a charge of theft. Of the two still sought by the Hawks, one passed on because of shock and the other is hiding, afraid to come back and reunite his family.
There would be no home at Shulana Court to return to however. After their release, the tenants were each given R1,500 to move out. All but one of the flats was vacated and the occupants are living in the dust of the owner’s renovations while their case is still pending in court.
Shulana Court shows how the property rights landlords are allowed to trump the human rights of residents. The tenants have a long history of fighting evictions from the building. In 2008, the building’s owner, Mark Steele, was granted an eviction order by the High Court since the tenants refused to leave. They took their case to the Supreme Court of Appeal, which ruled that their consequent homelessness was not taken into account.
This allowed the tenants to stay but this did not prevent Steele from increasing the rent and refusing to pay for services. Water and electricity was cut-off and it is for this reason that Simon, the tenant committee member charged with theft, says he started collecting the money himself to pay the municipal account.
In building after building fighting eviction, tenants are fighting similar battles – to keep the lights on, the rubbish collected, to replace the windows, to fend off the owner and retain their place in the city. The Socio-Economic Rights Institute, SERI is defending up to 40 cases concerning evictions in the inner city according to Bhavna Ramji, an attorney working on some of the cases for SERI. “For the past 10, 15 years there have been an inordinate number of evictions,” she says.
There are two main factors making evictions so prevalent in Johannesburg. Firstly, Ramji says, “Judges are granting evictions as a matter of course, without inquiring after the personal circumstances of the occupiers, and whether an eviction order will be just and equitable.”
Secondly, the City of Johannesburg has illusions of creating a world class city that is more about coaxing capital to invest than it is about the security of the people living here. This has resulted in the City bending to the interests of property developers. “The city is spending money just to entice capital instead of developing public resources. It’s making poor people unwelcome in their homes and it is keeping them poor,” Ramji explains.
The Inner City Resource Centre is researching the City’s claim to have a shortage of accommodation options. Shereza Sibanda, director of the Inner City Resource Centre, says it is one strategy to overcome the logjam of cases in the courts and to better living conditions. “People are dying in the ‘bad buildings’ – most people are [HIV} positive. With no income at all, and no water – imagine how they live,” she says of tenants waiting for court judgements that are endlessly delayed.
The Inner City Resource Centre represents tenants in the Rental Housing Tribunal, which is meant to protect the rights of tenants. The Tribunal will make rulings where tenants and owners agree to certain things, but Sibanda says, the owners ignore their commitments with impunity. “The Rental housing Tribunal doesn’t have teeth, can’t enforce their rulings. They don’t have a sheriff. They give it to you to serve to the owners. The owners know this, so do what they want to.”
In one strategy to solve the challenge of buildings becoming slums, the ICRC has since March been fixing a bad building with money collected by tenants. It belongs to the municipality though Sibanda says the City is still unaware of the project.