The City of Joburg and the Gauteng Hawks are determined to crack down on building hijackers who are causing financial loss to both illegal tenants, the city council and building owners.
The problem appears to be escalating, with about 1 200 buildings and 1 500 houses in Joburg’s inner-city suburbs hijacked.
Region F (inner city) spokesman Shaun O’Shea said the City of Joburg had pursued a focused regeneration initiative over the past couple of years that had resulted in a steady return of business and investment into the inner city.
"However, one of the stumbling blocks to redevelopment is building hijacking and slum-lording. These buildings are very often ‘bad buildings’, in that they are overcrowded, have problems with waste, are fire and safety hazards, and some are havens for criminals," he said.
William Pudkabekwa, the head of a special investigations task team set up by the council, said: "We are closing in on them, and very soon this will come to an end."
Many arrests had already been made, but the police would not confirm how many. "These syndicates are very well structured. We are close to making several arrests in many government and local government departments, including the City of Joburg’s revenue department and people at the Deeds Office," said Pudkabekwa.
The council, as well as owners, are losing hundreds of millions of rands as a result. It is estimated there are about 20 syndicates involved in various areas, including the CBD, Hillbrow, Yeoville, Rosettenville and Malvern.
"It is a sophisticated system, with many corrupt officials all being part of it," he added.
"There is a lot of money being made by hijackers, and it is the ordinary person who loses out because they either don’t understand the law, or most don’t have the money to start legal action. There are people lying in hospital because they have lost all they possess and find themselves homeless. One man whose home was hijacked suffered a heart attack because of this; another attempted suicide; and a third landed in hospital with a nervous breakdown," said Pudkabekwa.
In the past, police often refused to act or would lay only minor charges of trespassing and intimidation. They told complainants that it was a civil matter and that they could not help. The Hawks have now come on board, and during the past few weeks, 16 people have been arrested. Now police are laying more serious charges of racketeering, theft and fraud.
WHAT IS BEING DONE
A special investigation unit comprising a team of investigators, prosecutors, SA Revenue Service officials, the National Prosecuting Authority, the police and the Asset Forfeiture Unit was formed by the City of Joburg. The council recently launched Operation Ziveze, which will target 120 of the worst buildings. Teams of casual workers will be visiting the buildings and registering residents. Technical teams will first visit the buildings to examine them for by-law transgressions, such as fire and safety hazards. Residents will be registered so that the council can look for alternative accommodation. This is to be done along with the Hawks, who have launched Operation Jele, aimed at arresting building hijackers. They have committed to raiding four buildings a week. This process has already started. Two attorneys have been arrested in recent weeks. In the one case, the attorney changed Company and Intellectual Property Registration Office (Cipro) records to make himself the owner. The buyer paid Kenneth Mtila R3.5 million before discovering the sale was illegal. Another attorney was arrested for a second time for fraud involving the hijacking of buildings. At the time of her arrest, Zanele Mabija was out on R40 000 bail for seven cases of fraud for assisting a building-hijacking syndicate with the alleged fraudulent transfer of hijacked and vacant buildings. She has now been arrested for an eighth case. She was due in court last month for the previous seven cases. Mabija allegedly has been claiming to prospective buyers that she has been mandated by the City of Joburg to sell the buildings. Buyer Delvado Mendes approached her, wanting to purchase a building. She "sold" him Lorna Court, a building in Twist Street, Joubert Park, which had been hijacked. He deposited R350 000 into her account. He was then unable to contact her again and laid charges against her. Thethani Qwazi lives in an abandoned building in Olivia Road, Berea. He doesn’t pay rent, and the overcrowded house has no water or electricity."The owner ran away. The building is bad, but I have nowhere to go," he said. Residents had called their local councillor, who assisted them in getting their refuse removed by Pikitup. Qwazi said he was looking forward to the council finding him alternative accommodation. Hijackers hack into the Department of Trade and Industry’s Cipro and change the details, making themselves directors and thereby having the authority to sell the building. Many owners do not even know that they no longer own the buildings. Some corrupt City of Joburg staff inform hijackers of buildings with huge outstanding amounts and of deceased estates. The hijackers visit the premises and inform the owners that they have purchased the building or house. Tenants in buildings form committees, telling other tenants not to pay rent to the owners, but to them instead. Attorneys and the staff at various deeds offices are involved in changing title deeds. Another method is to obtain information about deceased estates and trust funds. The hijackers then muscle in and take over buildings and houses before the estate can be wound up. Another tactic used is to tell people who are behind with their bond repayments that they have purchased the property on auction. Syndicate members produce false auction papers and force the people to move out. Other syndicates attend genuine auction sales, put down a small deposit, get the papers from the auctioneers, evict the owners by force and put their own tenants in. In the meantime, they don’t take transfer. They collect rent for months before the banks step in and sell the properties on auction again. The same syndicate often then sends another of its members to the auction, and the process starts all over again. Hijackers also use false eviction papers with what looks like a genuine court stamp. Some stamps are genuine because court officials are bribed for the stamp. A shop in Hillbrow is manufacturing fraudulent stamps. Syndicates also use their contacts to find property owners who live abroad. Another method syndicates use is to form companies and place the stolen buildings under different names. People who are in arrears with rates and services are also targeted. The hijackers visit them at night, telling them that they are in arrears and forcing them to move out. Many of the houses that are being hijacked belong to older people living alone, and often in arrears. The hijackers visit these people at night and force them out of their homes, claiming that because they are in arrears, their houses have been attached. Many people are forced out overnight. The syndicates have on their payrolls attorneys, agents, staff at the Deeds Office and Sars, police officers who they bribe, and council officials who issue false clearance certificates. Even bank staff members are involved. Elsabé Conradie, the head of communications, marketing and stakeholder relations at the Department of Trade and Industry, said Cipro uses an online system to change directors which has the functionality/capability for an audit trail. "Every user of this online system registers through our independent service provider, who does identity verification at a fee, with the necessary water and lights bill to confirm the address," she said. The users/customers receive a one-day password every time they want to use the system to change directors. In that way there is better control over people who can access change-of-director functionality. A new practice note with regards to physical submissions/manual forms requires of directors to provide certified copies of their identity documents, certified copies of an extract of the minutes of the meeting where a resolution will have been taken to appoint or remove directors, as well as a certified copy of the notice of the meeting. The unit is encouraging anyone with information to contact a hotline that has been set up at 0860 111 381. The confidentiality of callers and their anonymity are guaranteed. A Joburg advocate is one of many victims of building hijacking. The woman was once hospitalised because of the trauma she has endured over the past year. The woman, who would not be named because she has had threats from her tenants, weeps as she tells her story. The building, Aiton Court in Hillbrow, has been part of her family for more than 35 years. "My parents, who were anti-apartheid activists, and who were founding members of Actstop, an organisation which acted against the illegal eviction of people of colour from buildings in Hillbrow, were involved with this building for many years. My mother was detained by the police many times," she said. The family initially lived in a neighbouring building, but were evicted. The owner of Aiton then offered them accommodation, and asked her mother to run it. She was the first person to rent the flats out to black people. Rivonia Trial members bought the building, and it was used as a hiding place for many underground activists. Her mother was given a 25 percent share in the building, she said. But the advocate eventually bought it for her parents. "Ever since my parents moved in, she and my father started doing community work. They started a mosque on the premises, which still exists today. They ran soup kitchens and did HIV/Aids and other counselling work for the community of Hillbrow. They also counselled drug addicts and prostitutes," she said. They took the tenants under their wings. "Many have lived there for almost 20 years. We have financed the education of many of their children. When they couldn’t afford to pay rent, we would give them time to pay it off. Rentals were low, at about one-third of the market price, and included water and lights." Then suddenly, in October last year, the tenants turned on her. They stopped paying rent and opened a separate bank account and told the tenants to pay their rental money into it. The tenants then took her to the Gauteng Housing Tribunal, which ruled in her favour and ordered the tenants to start paying rent. They refused to do so. The woman said she decided in March to sell the building after suffering ill- health from the stress. "I could no longer carry on losing rent each month, and I did not have the resources to carry on the legal process and evictions. She is owed about R500 000 in arrear rentals and about R400 000 for unpaid services. She then sold the building to a property developer who owns 70 buildings in the inner city. He tried having meetings with the committee, to no avail. He contacted the Hawks, and the committee members were arrested two weeks ago. He now intends proceeding with an eviction order. "It is the end of an era – the end of a legacy which my family left. I am devastated," the woman said. The Star