Homeless with a title deed: Soweto land owners' 10-year battle
For farmworker Zwelakhe Manana, having a piece of land on which to build a home for his wife and children had been a lifelong dream.
But after nearly a decade of bureaucratic bungling by the City of Johannesburg and the Joburg Property Company — and a protracted court battle which still rages — the 29-year-old has all but abandoned hope.
“I regret buying that land, after 10 years I have nothing to show for it,” he told Times Select.
Manana, who works on a farm in northern KwaZulu-Natal, was one of nine people who purchased residential stands in Zondi, Soweto, as part of the city’s “land regularisation programme” between 2009 and 2014.
The vacant veld, which was owned by the city, was subdivided and placed on public auction, the process culminating with a glitzy ceremony at the plush Gallagher Estate. There, Johannesburg mayor Parks Tau handed over title deeds.
But as soon as the new landowners tried to build their dream houses, they realised their pursuits would be fraught.
Their stands had no access to bulk infrastructure to supply electricity and water, forcing the new residents to wait for the city to act.
Despite the land standing vacant, the owners soon started amassing mammoth bills for rates and taxes.
In 2017 they banded together and, with the help of Wits University’s Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS), hauled city fathers to court to compel them to build the bulk infrastructure and clear the debt the nine had incurred.
They told us we just needed to be patient while they installed services for the land. We waited and we waited. We are still waiting today.Zondi land owner Zwelakhe Manana.
“When this land came available to be auctioned, I was so excited, I thought that if I could get a stand it would be a place for my family,” Manana said.
“They told us we just needed to be patient while they installed services for the land. We waited and we waited. We are still waiting today,” he added.
According to court papers obtained by Times Select, Johannesburg high court judge Thifhelimbilu Mudau ruled in favour of the landowners in October 2018.
In a settlement agreement which was made an order of the court, Mudau ordered that the city install bulk infrastructure and cancel the landowners' rates debt.
Another term of Mudau’s ruling was that the City of Johannesburg and the Joburg Property Company had two months to file a report setting out steps they had taken to provide bulk services.
This report was never filed.
In September last year, CALS attorney Vuyolethu Mntonintshi served officials with a contempt of court application in an attempt to spur them into action.
“Nothing has been done. They have never complied with the court order. We have given them every indulgence,” he said.
With the resignation of DA mayor Herman Mashaba and political upheaval causing a leadership void in the city, a fresh court challenge has been delayed until now.
The contempt of court application, expected to be set down when courts reopen from the forced Covid-19 recess, is a bid to have new Johannesburg mayor Geoff Makhubo and the city manager joined to the case.
“We want to join the new mayor because we have seen a tendency of officials shifting responsibility and blame. We want to tie them to this,” Mntonintshi said.
“These people are in pain. They have been waiting for their land for 10 years,” he added.
This pain is all too familiar for unemployed father Lebohang Motsumi, of Ekurhuleni, whose land purchase has become a nightmare.
Having a piece of land is supposed to be a dream, but in the reality of what has happened, it is a nightmareZondi land owner Lebohang Motsumi
“Having a piece of land is supposed to be a dream, but in the reality of what has happened, it is a nightmare,” he said.
He paid R37,500 for his stand and has since amassed more than R10,000 in rates debt for a property he has only seen and never used.
“Only after we had the title deeds in our hands did we realise there was no bulk, and because of that, there was no chance we could ever build houses on our land,” he said.
“I was going to build myself a home and so many years later I am still renting,” he added.
He said that the City of Johannesburg had ignored the court order, leaving her to deal with debt collectors.
“Everything they promised when we settled out of court was a lie. My bills are still piling up from the city and I am the one who suffers because now my credit rating is compromised,” he said.
“It is just a vacant veld, there is nothing there. I used to go and visit my stand, but going there just makes me sad, so I stay away.”
City of Johannesburg spokesperson Nthatisi Modingoane said the city was working hard to resolve the issue.
Modingoane said a council resolution to have the city buy back the land was still outstanding, hamstringing the process.
Repeated attempts to secure comment from the Joburg Property Company and the Gauteng department of human settlements were unsuccessful at the time of publishing.