South Africa

THE HIGH PLACE, PART ONE

Ulundi squatters who hijacked state-owned houses 20 years ago given an ultimatum: move out or else

Ulundi squatters who hijacked state-owned houses 20 years ago given an ultimatum: move out or else
One of the houses that government officials used to call home near the old legislature building in Ulundi in northern KwaZulu-Natal. (Photo: Phumlani Thabethe)

The hijacked buildings – once the swish homes of senior government officials and MECs – have been illegally occupied since 2004, while the provincial government has picked up the power, water and refuse tabs. Now, it appears the authorities have finally had enough.

The invaders – including alleged “hitmen” – squatting in more than 100 state-owned luxury houses and flats in Ulundi, northeastern KwaZulu-Natal, have been told to leave by 30 September 2023 or face eviction.

The buildings form part of the government complex built by the erstwhile KwaZulu homeland government since 1983, and were meant to house government employees and provincial ministers.

The complex is made up of the legislative assembly building, administration building, ministerial housing complex comprising 15 residences, 80 flats for legislative assembly members, 25 housing units for senior KwaZulu-Natal government officials, regional office units, the Ulundi Airport and Ulundi Zulu Royal residence office.

Government officials say almost all of the more than 100 properties in and around Ulundi have been occupied by people who, besides not paying a cent, also threaten government maintenance contractors, which has resulted in the buildings deteriorating.

Most of the hijacked houses and flats are in Ulundi’s B-North suburb. Others are on vacant Department of Public Works-owned land, which has been invaded and houses erected on it.

Flats that used to house government officials near the old legislature building in Ulundi. (Photo: Phumlani Thabethe)

They were used by the IFP-led KwaZulu-Natal government from 1994 until 2004 – during which it alternated with Pietermaritzburg as the provincial capital – when the ANC took over power under premier S’bu Ndebele. The KZN legislature and the provincial government department headquarters then moved to Pietermaritzburg. The legislature is now housed in a colonial-era building at 239 Langalibalele Street.

The exodus of government business from Ulundi left many of the buildings empty and squatters moved in, and the Department of Public Works has been picking up the tab for water, electricity, refuse removal and municipal rates for these properties ever since.

In 2012, the government had to settle a R100-million bill owed by the illegal tenants to the Ulundi Local Municipality for unpaid electricity and refuse collection.

Vandalised

One of the luxury houses – once home to senior government officials and MECs – has been stripped of its doors, windows, copper pipes, taps, ceilings and upmarket kitchen fittings and vandalised to the point that cattle roam about the property. Dung is everywhere. The once magnificent lawns and flower gardens are a shadow of what they were.

Other houses on the same street are occupied illegally by professionals and government employees, some of whom became apprehensive when they heard we were journalists and refused to speak on the record. Some said they feared retribution from those who were “protecting the properties from being confiscated by the state”.

The old government flats in Ulundi have been left in a sorry state. (Photo: Phumlani Thabethe)

A woman, who appeared to be in her mid-forties, in one of the ministerial houses warned us against asking too many questions, saying we were lucky her husband was not in the house.

A man in his thirties said he had occupied one of the properties with his wife, a nurse at the local hospital. He saw nothing wrong with the illegal occupations, he added.

“We expect that at some stage the government will regularise our stay here and eventually give us all the rights, including title deeds,” the woman said.

One of the illegal occupants pulled out two firearms, placed them on the table and said: ‘Yes, Mr Majola, we can talk now.’ I was terrified.

Sandile Gumede* (49), who described himself as a former policeman who is now a businessman, is also described as one of the ringleaders who threaten government officials who try to reclaim the houses and flats.

They are not going anywhere, he warned.

“Some of us are former SDU (Self-Defence Unit, the IFP-aligned paramilitary wings formed in the Eighties and Nineties). So, we too are military veterans who are supposed to get support from the state,” he continued.

“The former Umkhonto weSizwe (ANC armed wing) are feted by the state. They are occupying houses and government flats and government assist them. When we occupy these houses, the ANC government wants to take it away from us.”

In February 2023, Siboniso Majola, who heads the KZN public works department, said he had been physically threatened when he tried to engage the invaders.

The buildings form part of the government complex built by the erstwhile KwaZulu homeland government since 1983, and were meant to house government employees and provincial ministers. (Photo: Phumlani Thabethe)

“I went to the old legislature complex in Ulundi to talk to some of the illegal occupants that they needed to vacate the flats. One of the illegal occupants pulled out two firearms, placed them on the table and said: ‘Yes, Mr Majola, we can talk now.’ I was terrified,” said Majola.

Another government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that when they used the police and security guards to remove the illegal occupiers and stationed security guards to look after the houses, the guards were threatened by a heavily armed group of men who ordered them to “leave, or else”. 

The guards had hastily left their posts, fearing for their lives, and the houses were reoccupied by the invaders.

Ultimatum

Makhosazane Zungu, an ANC MPL and chairperson of the public works portfolio committee in the provincial legislature, said the invaders not only threaten government officials, but also refuse any sort of engagement with officialdom.

“We have given them until the end of September (2023) or face formal eviction. We cannot allow these government properties to be occupied and vandalised by people who can clearly afford to live off their own money,” she said, adding that they want the invaders to move out so the buildings can be renovated and put up for rent or sold on the open market.

“We have asked the MEC for public works, Dr Ntuthuko Mahlaba, to work together with the SAPS KZN provincial commissioner, Lieutenant-General Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi, to get the squatters to leave these properties before the end of September.

“Those who are saying we are moving these people while leaving former MK members to occupy government houses are wrong,” she added.

“We will move on them even if they were occupied by former MK veterans because in this country there are laws and regulations you cannot just invade properties just like that.”

The national Department of Public Works had said there were 14,000 properties – houses and plots – that “we have to secure and move out squatters. It is not only the properties in Ulundi, we are looking at government properties across the province.”

Mlungisi Khumalo, spokesperson for the MEC Mahlaba, said the MEC and senior departmental officials are working with law enforcement agencies to engage the squatters and get them to move out.

“The department is liable to pay for services as long as the property is still in the asset register of the state. We cannot allow a situation where people are illegally occupying government properties for free and government is only picking up the bills. 

“We are also engaging the illegal occupiers to try and find an amicable solution to this problem. We hope a solution will be found before the end of the September deadline. Otherwise, the law will have to take its course and those who are occupying these properties illegally will be evicted,” Khumalo said.

‘Political football’

The IFP, meanwhile, says the issue has been turned unnecessarily into a political football. 

Teejay Gumede, an IFP MPL and a member of the portfolio committee, said she will be conducting her own site visit to speak to the squatters.

“This matter was not thoroughly debated in the legislature, but we members of the portfolio committee were surprised to see a political statement issued on behalf of the committee by ANC members,” she said.

“This matter has to be handled with care, without involving politics.”

In 2012, the government had to settle a R100-million bill owed by the illegal tenants to the Ulundi Local Municipality for unpaid electricity and refuse collection. (Photo: Phumlani Thabethe)

Wilson Ntshangase, a prominent IFP leader and mayor of the Ulundi Local Municipality, told Daily Maverick that the municipality would like to see the problem sorted out as soon as possible.

“The municipality has nothing to do with these properties as they belong to the state. The municipality only offers services like electricity and refuse removal to these properties and our officials deal with the Department of Public Works when there are outstanding rates and other charges. I don’t have all the details and figures of how much is owed to the municipality with regard to these properties at this point in time,” he added. DM

Look out for

Part Two – a Ground Level Report on the political power play over Ulundi; and

Part Three – a deep dive into the unhoused in Ulundi. 

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