Mbombela learning points for Mayor Mashaba’s nightmare

Vannin Court in Hillbrow File picture: Lebogang Molote / ANA

Can anything good come out of Nazareth? That was a snide remark made by city-slickers.

Now Mayor Mashaba has 115 000 foreigners whose immigration status is suspect living in abysmal conditions in his city.  In a country whose own citizens can hardly find work – with unemployment rates reaching 30 percent.

How do you get these imposters out?  Well saying that Home Affairs is not doing their job is just blame-shifting.  It may be true, but a Mayor’s concerns should focus on municipal issues like safety, public health and housing.

Here in Mbombela, on a much reduced scale, we have a story to tell…

It starts with the perennial tension between landlords and tenants.  Landlords tend to be one manifestation of “white monopoly capital”.  They own land and infrastructure and they want to generate even more wealth by collecting rental income.  So they rent out units to tenants.

In recent decades, laws have been “liberalized” to favour tenants.  One can understand why, given the history of exploitation in South Africa.  At this stage, the relevant laws favour the tenants.  Landlords find it very difficult to remove tenants when they default on their rent or damage their property.  This is problem number one.

Problem number two is when a tenant moves out and sub-lets the dwelling to someone else.  Sometimes at a premium, meaning they actually make a monthly profit margin on the deal.  This perk becomes part of their regular income, which they really don’t want to part with.  So although this manoevre may not be compliant with their contract, it’s too good an opportunity to pass up.  The rewards are worth the risks.  And anyways, there are ways to deal with “problem landlords”.

Problem number three is the numbers game.  When a tenant has sub-let a dwelling, it is now two-against-one.  The landlord is immediately out-numbered.

Problem number four is when this imbalance goes to scale.  For example, when there are multiple dwellings on the same site.  Perhaps an apartment building?  It can be ten-against-one or even fifty-against-one.  This synergy devastates the landlord, especially when it comes to legal fees.  Evictions happen one dwelling at a time – not one apartment block at a time.  By synergizing, tenants gang up on the Owner.  Effectively they create informal tenant associations, to fight the common enemy.  Often this functions because the landlord does not speak the same language as the tenants.  Having 11 national languages is not always good for cohesion.

Problem number five is when the middle-man (the tenant who has sub-let at a higher rate) defaults on paying any rent to the WMC landlord.  Sub-letting to foreigners is a particularly juicy strategy, because a court can’t assume that they have family they can go to for refuge.  So foreigners are actually used as human shields by their “slumlords” – who rake off all the money, default on paying any rent to the Owner, and don’t spend any of their income on upkeep or repairs.  This is where health and safety issues creep in.  The fire extinguishers are not refreshed.  The alien invasive species in the garden are not kept under control.  The Wendy house in the garden becomes the garbage dump.  We have photos of all these realities in beautiful downtown Mbombela.

Problem number six is the mounting burden of legal fees on the true Owner.  Evictions cost money and the tenants have watched the way politicians can drag out court cases.  They ask for postponements.  We have even seen an Eviction Order appealed to the High Court!  That is un-heard of, but on record in Mbombela.  Meanwhile by not paying their rent they are reducing the landlord’s cash-flow.  Then there are the costs of Collections of Un-paid Rent and “costs” if those are awarded by the court.

Problem number seven is when this almost turns into a kind of land invasion.  They claim that their forefathers lived on this land so they have aboriginal rights to stay.  They claim that the landlord promised them a perpetual right of occupancy.  Of course they do not have any paperwork to substantiate this, but it is the word of two, ten or fifty against one.

Problem number eight is when the tenants get militant.  They revile and taunt the landlord or his representatives.  In Mbombela there have been death threats by tenants against landlords.

Problem number nine is when they are forced out, they take with them everything they can grab including plumbing fixtures, light fixtures and even door handles. 

And problem number ten is that this kind of confrontation continues to throw fuel on the racial divide.  If the landlord hires black lawyers to discount this factor, they are just called “oreos”.

In Mbombela we cannot fathom the scale of Mayor Mashaba’s problem.  But we can empathize.  The rule of law is replaced by mob psychology.  It is no longer about the merits of the case, but about who outnumbers who.

Ironically, because they are still the legal owners of the properties, landlords may be liable for injuries or death on those properties?  Like when fire breaks out and tenants jump from the balconies.

And when they comment that human rights extremism is to blame, they are seen as reactionary.

Chuck Stephens is the Executive Director of the Desmond Tutu Centre for Leadership and writes in his personal capacity