Public Protector Thuli Madonsela has waded into Johannesburgâ€™s murky world of hijacked buildings, ordering mayor Parks Tau to compensate the owners of two buildings that had been occupied by illegal tenants for nearly six years.
However, Ms Madonsela warned the remedial action she was recommending in these two cases was not available to all property owners who had lost property to hijackers.
She ordered the City of Johannesburg to conduct an investigation into all privately owned buildings that are illegally occupied and to ensure it complies with its responsibility to provide emergency housing.
“Illegal occupation has become a real nightmare for investors seeking to earn their fortunes through property or to use purchased property for business purposes,” said Ms Madonsela, speaking from her offices in Pretoria on the release of the results of four recent investigations.
Three pertained to service failure, while the other looked into conduct failure by the Johannesburg metro. Ms Madonsela said anecdotal evidence showed that illegal occupation of buildings was “particularly rife in the city of Johannesburg”.
The city says about R8bn in income is lost every year from illegally occupied buildings. While the number of such properties in Johannesburgâ€™s central business district has decreased to about 100 from 1,000, the practice is seen as spreading to the suburbs.
About 50% of properties in areas such as Rosettenville, La Rochelle, Moffat View and Turffontein have been hijacked and only half of owners have managed to recover their properties, a City of Johannesburg official said earlier this year.
During her investigation into the two buildings in question, the public protector found that the city had failed to terminate electricity to the properties â€” a move that would have discouraged the illegal tenants from taking occupation â€” despite being asked to do so.
The illegal occupiers were its previous owners, who had failed to make payments prior to the properties being acquired by a Mr and Mrs Kgaudi, the complainants.
The Kgaudis had intended to use the buildings to set up a shoe factory and for other commercial purposes.
The city also wrongfully billed the new owners for the illegal consumption of services, leading to a “huge” bill that undermined the ownerâ€™s attempts to sell the properties.
Ms Madonsela said the city had committed to reverse the wrongful billing several times but failed to do so. This meant the city had failed to honour its own by-laws on enforcing the law on the illegal consumption of water and electricity.
“For years,” the city had failed to honour its constitutional responsibility to provide housing, including emergency housing, leaving the buildingsâ€™ owners to “shoulder such responsibility”, said Ms Madonsela.
She found the city to have failed to hold a councillor accountable for encouraging the illegal occupation of buildings and interfering in the eviction of illegal tenants.
Such lapses by the City of Johannesburg constituted maladministration, Ms Madonsela said. She urged the city administration to approach the city council with a request to buy the two buildings as redress for harm caused to the complainants. The latter would have been able to timeously evict the illegal occupants or sell the building had they not been misled and wrongfully billed by the city, she said.
The City of Johannesburg said it welcomed the public protectorâ€™s report into “alleged maladministration in relation to city by-laws, hijacked buildings” and would give a detailed response once it had seen the report.