Last week, South Africans were reminded of what happens when the state fails to do its basic duty. In what would forever be an indictment on post-apartheid South Africa — similar to the death of 34 mineworkers at Marikana and the Lily Mine tragedy — 77 people died in a blaze at a state-owned building in Marshalltown, Johannesburg, that I maintain could’ve been avoided.
Read more in Daily Maverick: City of Johannesburg points finger at NGOs and foreign nationals after deadly fire
Their untimely death is not a freak accident as the ruling party would like us to believe, but is emblematic of the systemic breakdown in the rule of South Africa. How is it possible that 29 years into South Africa, we have allowed state-owned buildings to be hijacked by mafia-like landlords; where the most vulnerable of our society are extorted to pay rent despite the building being illegally occupied? The inhumane circumstances of these buildings simply do not live up to the South African ideals as defined in the Constitution.
For the past decade, I have personally been convinced to address the growing issue of building hijackings in Johannesburg. I made it one of my key campaign promises in the run-up to the 2016 local government elections. To this day, I think it is unacceptable that children are raised in these dingy buildings.
Often, these buildings have no running water, or access to electricity and are subdivided with flammable placards to allow more and more people to be crammed inside. They are dark with open fires and candles being used to keep people warm, sewage runs freely with the stink thick in the air while drugs are allowed to be sold freely.
Mission to turn the tide
When I became mayor of Johannesburg in August 2016, I made it one of my administration’s key priorities to address the hijacking of buildings — a situation that deteriorated to such a devastating level due to the ruling party’s head-in-the-sand approach to the rule of law.
In my maiden mayoral acceptance speech on 22 August 2016, I said “the economic revival of the inner city is key to creating an inclusive and prosperous city for all our residents. We will facilitate the revamping of empty and hijacked buildings by the private sector.”
After establishing the Group Forensics and Investigating Services (GFIS) unit within the City to tackle corruption in 2016, I soon established the Property Hijackings Unit within it in 2017 specifically to address the high number of hijacked buildings.
My administration made the commitment to release 100 previously hijacked properties — including abandoned factories — to the private sector each year to help build affordable housing for the city’s poorest and students.
The problems we found were daunting. After decades of the ruling party’s misrule in the City of Johannesburg, 643 buildings were identified to have been hijacked, while the city had a housing backlog of approximately 300,000 units. In the inner city alone, there was a shortfall of 30,000 affordable housing units which contributed to buildings being hijacked by criminal syndicates.
Our administration was committed to starting to address the issue — pioneering a hijacked building reclamation programme in South Africa. Together with the South African Police Service (SAPS), Department of Home Affairs, and city entities, we started to raid these hijacked buildings regularly to restore the rule of law in the city.
We lobbied the provincial and national governments for additional financial assistance but received little support, made presentations to the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Home Affairs on issues faced, and had meetings with the then Minister of Public Works Patricia de Lille to expedite our inner city rejuvenation programme.
Despite being limited by court cases and a legal prerequisite to provide temporary emergency housing (TEA) if we wanted to evict people living in problem buildings — spending money the city simply didn’t have — the work of our administration started to help to turn things around.
During my term, 40 of these hijacked buildings were returned to their rightful owners and 154 city properties were released, with an additional 37 abandoned factories released. The development of these sites was expected to result in R32-billion in investment, the creation of 21,000 jobs and 14,500 affordable housing opportunities. Today, places like Jewel City bear testament to the work my administration did.
However, this project lost steam after my resignation in 2019. Johannesburg would have been in a much better situation today had I been allowed to complete my term, but changes in the national political landscape made this impossible.
The subsequent administration worked quickly to halt my inner-city regeneration programme while important and effective city entities such as GFIS were hollowed out as it was investigating corruption and maladministration of important ruling party politicians.
Today, key city institutions such as the City’s fire department are struggling to keep up with the demand for its services due to the subsequent misrule, leading to the establishment of private firefighting.
But it is not all a lost cause. I maintain that these hijacked buildings can be reclaimed to provide affordable dignified housing for poor residents close to work opportunities. Reclaiming old, abandoned and hijacked buildings can be one of the key levers the South African government uses to reignite construction within South Africa at a time when our economy needs all the assistance it can receive.
I look forward to unpacking some of ActionSA’s solutions to deal with reviving our economy, including better spatial planning and reclaiming abandoned buildings, at our inaugural policy conference in Ekurhuleni next week.
Johannesburg, and indeed the whole of South Africa, can become a construction site creating thousands of jobs, growing our economy and uplifting millions out of poverty. Our inner cities — from Johannesburg to Gqeberha — can become clean, safe and walkable; attracting tourists from the world over and providing affordable housing close to job opportunities to help drive our economy.
A better Johannesburg and South Africa is possible, but will require political will that is unfortunately not seen in current administrations.
Unless we take this drastic action, we will be stuck in the current economic stagnation with our poor predominantly negatively affected, where another disaster, like the one in Marshalltown last week, is waiting to happen. DM
Herman Mashaba is ActionSA’s President and former mayor of the City of Johannesburg.