Defend Truth


The false narrative of Joburg’s ‘hijacked buildings’ is used to fuel xenophobic violence


Malaika Mahlatsi, commonly known as Malaika Wa Azania, is the bestselling author of ‘Memoirs of a Born Free: Reflections on the Rainbow Nation’, and the recently published ‘Corridors of Death: The Struggle to Exist in Historically White Institutions’. She is a Geographer/Urban Planner and Research Fellow at the University of Johannesburg's Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation.

Government officials, not undocumented immigrants, are at the centre of hijacked buildings in South Africa. There is irrefutable evidence that many state-owned properties and tracts of land have been hijacked by a syndicate working with government officials.

Fourteen years after a series of violent xenophobic attacks left 62 people dead and many more injured and displaced, the spectre of xenophobic violence is once again looming over South Africa.

A few weeks ago, a group of locals formed a group called #OperationDudula which has been conducting so-called clean-up operations in Soweto and other parts of Johannesburg. The group claims to be ridding townships of undocumented immigrants, whom it claims are responsible for criminality and “stealing” jobs from South Africans.

The group’s modus operandi is to go in numbers to homes and informal trading stores occupied by foreign nationals and to forcefully evict them. Members of #OperationDudula claim that the stalls are hijacked by foreign nationals, who are also accused of breaking municipal by-laws. 

The argument that illegal immigrants hijack stalls in Soweto borrows from the prevalent narrative that the decay in the inner city of Johannesburg is the result of the hijacking of buildings by foreigners. This narrative has been cemented by various politicians, most notably the city’s former mayor, Herman Mashaba.

As a starting point, I must state that it is indeed true that there are buildings in the inner city of Johannesburg and across South African cities that are illegally occupied. Some of these occupants are undocumented immigrants.

The fall of apartheid in 1994 saw multitudes of black Africans move into once-prohibited cities, particularly Johannesburg. This movement saw white residents and a majority of businesses moving out and relocating their offices to the northern suburbs. This disinvestment in the city, coupled with ineffective management of the urban environment, resulted in its decline. The value of properties plummeted and buildings were left abandoned.

With rising levels of unemployment and poverty, as well as the housing crisis that defines urban South Africa, Johannesburg and other cities have experienced the phenomenon of slum development and hijacked buildings.

But the question of hijacked buildings is far more complex than many realise. For one thing, hijacked buildings are not simply a result of criminality on the part of occupants. Rather, they are made necessary by the absence of social housing for the poor in the inner city. Neither the Gauteng Provincial Government nor the City of Johannesburg Metropolitan Municipality have implemented spatial development strategies aimed at creating sustainable human settlements that prioritise the inner-city poor.

Instead, both tiers of government have actively facilitated gentrification and the development of gated neighbourhoods. This is their idea of “urban rejuvenation”. The poor, who cannot afford the rent in these spaces and who cannot relocate further outside the city owing to centralised economic opportunities and expensive transport costs, have been hurled to the margins.

Without income, the inner-city poor engage in informal rental agreements that are often mischaracterised as hijacking buildings.

In some cases, buildings are described as hijacked when occupants refuse to pay rent owing to legitimate reasons that include, but are not limited to, lack of maintenance on the part of landlords.

In my master’s research on gentrification in the Johannesburg inner city, I discovered that it is not uncommon for landlords to disregard their contractual obligations towards tenants while still demanding rental payments. These tenants, many of whom are very poor and some of whom are undocumented immigrants, have very little recourse, owing to the complexity of navigating the legal system.

We should never pretend that the legal system is not intimidating and complex, particularly for the most disenfranchised of people, and certainly for undocumented immigrants whose precarious status makes it difficult for them to approach law enforcement. Landlords use this to their advantage, evicting people who are alleged to be occupying buildings illegally, when in reality they have been paying rentals for many years.

It is important to note that while some of these tenants are undocumented migrants, a majority are in fact South Africans, many of whom have migrated from rural areas and even townships across Gauteng.

But an even bigger issue is that government officials, not undocumented immigrants, are at the centre of hijacked buildings in South Africa. There is irrefutable evidence that many state-owned properties and tracts of land have been hijacked by a syndicate working with government officials. This was confirmed in 2019 by Public Works Minister Patricia de Lille, who also added that government is the custodian of more than 30,000 pieces of land and more than 80,000 buildings, the status and value of which it does not know.

A senior public works official has been quoted as saying: “…corrupt officials, who access the unsecured register, work with criminals to identify neglected, forgotten or vacant properties. They transfer these to third parties and then sell or lease them, earning themselves millions of rands. We are not just talking about one property, but hundreds. Houses, flats, office blocks and land are being hijacked and stolen without government’s knowledge.”

Groups such as #OperationDudula would have us believe that undocumented immigrants are hijacking stalls and buildings, but the reality is that immigrants are being used as scapegoats for the many failures of government. The failure to create jobs, the unresolved question of landlessness, the glacial pace of transforming the spatial planning regime that is still reminiscent of apartheid spatiality and the inability to provide social housing in the inner city are at the root of the problem.

But it is more convenient to lay the blame at the feet of undocumented immigrants and agitate the disenfranchised youth in townships to evict them. It is more convenient to claim that immigrants are the problem because the alternative explanation, that we have an indifferent and ineffective government, shatters our illusion of a liberal democracy we so desperately want to save. DM

Malaika Mahlatsi, commonly known as Malaika Wa Azania, is the bestselling author of Memoirs of a Born Free: Reflections on the Rainbow Nation, and the recently published Corridors of Death: The Struggle to Exist in Historically White Institutions. She is a Geographer/Urban Planner and Research Fellow at the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation. When she is not writing, she listens to Bruce Springsteen with a cup of rooibos tea.



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  • Carsten Rasch says:

    Interesting story, thanks, but it is dishonest naming only Mashaba and I guess as convenient as blaming minorities for the failing of the state, a pastime even Ramaphosa still engages in periodically. Both these scape goats are used again and again to try and distract the public from the failings of the ruling ANC.
    It is also convenient to look at the xenophobia issue as an urban problem that simply steals jobs and accommodation from locals, when in fact, it is yet another failing of our so-called government, who are tasked with keeping our borders secure, and has an obligation to register and process refugees. Zimbabweans, for example, who numbers in the hundreds of thousands living in South Africa, are not treated as refugees, because that would imply that the Zimbabwean government is abusing its own citizens, depriving them of making a living in their own country, which would implicate ZANU-PF and their reprehensible leaders as despots, which is unacceptable for a sister liberation movement.
    It is also worth mentioning that the financial institutions of this country also played its part in the slumming of not only the innercity but it’s surrounding suburbs too. This practice is called “redlining”, – identifying high-risk areas, and then declining home-loan applications for them. Informally, of course.

  • Ron Ron says:

    And the burgeoning informal settlements spreading like water hyacinth all around Johannesburg? They also pay rent, but not to anyone with the slenderest claim to ownership of the underlying property – no doubt exploited and no doubt funding criminal organisations. Who lives there? South Africans or undocumented migrants? Why does the City tolerate the rampant lawlessness in one area, while suddenly razing another? Follow the money

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