South Africa

Hillbrow: An eviction order? Check. Enforced? Check.

By Daily Maverick Legacy 14 March 2013

Residents of a Hillbrow building were forcefully evicted on Tuesday. GREG NICOLSON and SHASHA MODIKE arrived a day later and tried to piece together what happened.

Belongings choke the footpath. Family photographs lie stacked on cabinets alongside mattresses. The Tuesday rain has drenched clothes and couches. Recyclers look at fridges and washing machines before strapping them to carts made for plastic bottles. The scavengers with cars eye the furniture. Traffic passes and passengers stare.

Tenants from a building on Wolmarans Street, Hillbrow, were evicted on Tuesday when the Red Ants, those foot soldiers of property law, were deployed. “The Red Ants came here at about 10:00 yesterday and commanded us to stay outside as they were going to take everything out because the deadline has already passed,” says Modisa, a resident, backed by his neighbour Emmanuel Kgorosi.

Evictees tell Daily Maverick an eviction notice was given last November and tenants were told they might be evicted any time this year. Some say an appeal is still pending in court, but they don’t share details on the matter.

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Photo: The former residents who remained at the Wolmarans building on Wednesday were reluctant to talk to the media.

It looks like a tsunami swept through the apartment building and washed the possessions of hundreds of people out onto the street. Faces sunken, eyes glazed, the dozen or so evictees around the building perch against walls and sit on office chairs and sofas, which are usually torn or missing a cushion. They watch the scavengers walk over their collective possessions.

“It was raining yesterday when Vermaak came here with the Red Ants who started forcefully taking out our belongings. Some of our valuables such as laptops and portable radios are gone, but it will be solved by the court because it is now in court,” says Sithole, who only wanted to be known by his surname.

Residents warn us. They say on Tuesday they saw a researcher being assaulted by the Red Ants and forced to delete images from his camera. Abel Mbambo, who also lived in the building, says he saw them taking a camera and other possessions and throw them away.

A 19-year-old matric student, who doesn’t want to be named, stands outside the building, leaning on a concrete ledge. “They came at about 9:00 in the morning,” she recalls. “They got into the flat and commanded that we go out of the flat and it was raining. They started taking out the beds, wardrobes and cupboards. Some of the stuff they took with no care and they were breaking them, saying they were sent by Vermaak who owned the place. I don’t know his first name, what I know is that he is Vermaak. We have been told that the building belongs to the state, but someone sold it for his or her own benefit.

“They first said we have to pack our belongings, but later within the space of two hours they started removing (our belongings) themselves. Some of the wardrobes are lost. My schoolbooks are wet. I was scared and crying because I didn’t expect it. There were many of them, they came with three trucks and a bus. I have somewhere to go to but it is not safe,” she says, pointing to a nearby building. “I may go back to school maybe next month or next year because I already missed some of my examinations. I’m no longer sure about school this year, but I wanted to study drama at university in the future.” She lived in the building with her mother but spent the previous night on the stoep.

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Photo: The building was locked after all the tenants were evicted, but security guards let some former residents back inside to search for their things.

Vermaak’s name is whispered and cursed. Residents paint him as the figure behind their problems who “treats black people like they’re worth nothing,” according to one fuming evictee. No one at the building had details on who he really is or what he does. He’s just the man to blame, they felt, the man who called the Red Ants.

Greg Vermaak, a prominent lawyer in property circles when it comes to evictions, rubbished these claims. “With the successful removal of more than 400,000 illegal squatters from a range of properties across Johannesburg and Gauteng over the past 20 years, Greg has earned his reputation, as a leader in this field of law,” reads his website.

Speaking to Daily Maverick on Wednesday, he says was not at the property when the eviction took place and has no claims on ownership to the building, but he has been involved in the issue for a long time representing the new owner. His clients are regular people and he prefers to be the face of the eviction proceedings to keep them out of the mess, he says.

Vermaak says he and the property owner, a trust planning to use it for residential purposes, understand “the depths of unhappiness” but none of the former tenants can claim to be in the dark about the fact that they were going to be evicted.

The trust bought the building at a public auction in 2010 or 2011, says Vermaak, and sought to start eviction proceedings. Prior to its sale, the property had been bought as a housing association to provide accommodation using a provincial grant, but the group failed to change over the registration details. That maladministration caused the tenants’ problems, he says. When the city looked at the arrear rates owed, it decided to sell the property through a liquidator. After two years in court an eviction order was issued, giving residents three months to get out.

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Photo: In the the street-side mess is things like personal photographs and quality clothing which passersby are helping themselves to.

Was Vermaak’s client obliged to provide alternative accommodation? we asked. “That’s the key question in matters like this. What are the people’s circumstances?” In a 2011 interview with Sunday Times, he said, “There is no obligation on a private landowner to provide accommodation for someone who cannot pay the rent.” He reiterates the statement on Wednesday. The court examined the tenants’ circumstances extensively but found that they were not indigent, meaning alternative accommodation was not required, says Vermaak. Residents tried to take the matter to court on Wednesday but got nowhere, he says.

Some evicted tenants say they thought they lived in a building belonging to the state which had subsidised rent, requiring them only to pay water and electricity bills. They hope government will intervene, they tell Daily Maverick. Others, like 60-year-old Frank Kubayi, who says he lived in the building since 1999, says rent for a two-bedroom flat was R2,500 a month.

Kubayi, like many of the residents, wasn’t home when the Red Ants hit. When he returned he went straight to his apartment, briefly allowed by security to enter. Nothing was left. His belongings had been dumped on the street and lost in the curbside scrap yard. “I’ll wait until month end when I am paid,” he says, watching the cars pass. “Then I might be able to find somewhere else to live.” DM

All photos by Greg Nicolson/Daily Maverick

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