South Africa: City-run hostel hijacked by criminals

The City of Johannesburg attributes the deplorable state of the building to frequent incidents of vandalism and theft

Hundreds of people displaced to a former hospital building by the city of Johannesburg some 14 years ago say their living conditions have become inhumane.

Poorer people have since moved into the building with a group of suspected criminals who have threatened the occupants and demanded rent.

The City attributes the condition of the building to frequent incidents of vandalism and theft. He says future plans include turning the building into affordable housing once they evict the occupants.

About 400 people have been relocated to a former hospital in downtown Johannesburg after their mass eviction by the city of Johannesburg 14 years ago. Since then, more and more people have moved in and those who live there say their living conditions have become unbearable. They say the city didn’t charge them rent, but now they’re getting paid rent by criminals who “hijacked” the building.

The building is known as MBV (Phase 1) in Joubert Park near the edge of Braamfontein, close to the city centre. The project was once a success story for poor inner city residents.

The families were among some 67,000 people evicted from mnyama ndawo buildings in the city center. At the time, more than 100 families represented by the Center for Applied Legal Studies opposed their eviction from two buildings called San Jose and Zinns. They argued that their eviction was illegal and that the city had failed to provide the evictees with alternative housing. In 2007, the case ended up in the Constitutional Court which ruled that the city must “significantly engage” the occupants and provide alternative accommodation. The families in the San Jose and Zinns buildings were then moved to the old hospital which was converted into what was supposed to be a temporary hostel.

Since then, this inn has become a nightmare for its occupants. The building has a dilapidated shared kitchen, dining room and laundry room, and the shared toilets and bathrooms no longer work. The building is surrounded by ankle-deep sewage filled with feces, disposable diapers and other dumps. Moldy water leaks can also be seen in most hallways.

Males share smaller rooms and there are slightly larger rooms for families. Residents say a security company was appointed when they first moved in, but the building is no longer guarded.

They say that since the building was “hijacked”, the suspected criminals have been charging rent of R250 a month for a room shared by up to ten people. Some larger rooms are “rented” for R1800 per month. Many people GroundUp spoke to said they live in fear of these self-appointed owners. They say their attempts over the years to get the City to fix the problem have been futile.

Nelson Khethani was among those deported from San Jose in 2004. He moved to Johannesburg in search of better job opportunities, but struggled to find something permanent. “We don’t really have a place to call home,” Khethani says. He lives in one of the larger family rooms which barely has enough space for his furniture.

Khethani said he was forced to fire his wife and children due to security issues in the building. “When the City brought us here, everything seemed to be fine. We had no idea we would be sitting in a sewage pool, the toilets are blocked, thieves do what they want and there are no maintenance. The building was hijacked right under their noses,” he says.

Like most locals, Khethani says he has no choice but to continue living there as he depends on piecemeal jobs in the city center and cannot afford to pay a rent.

The South African Socio-Economic Rights Institute (SERI) and some residents are calling on the City to improve living conditions at the hostel. “The building is not properly managed by the City. There has been a blockage at the property since October 2021 and to date has not been repaired. There is also no caretaker. Everyone has access to property, insofar as there are a lot of illegal occupants,” said Tebogo Tshehlo, candidate lawyer at SERI.

City spokesman Nthatisi Modingoane blamed the condition of the building on frequent incidents of vandalism and theft. Modingoane said many people have since moved in illegally, which has complicated matters for the city.

“In January 2020, the city planned to evict the illegal occupants, but due to Covid, those plans were delayed. The plan is to convert the building to affordable rentals,” he said. Modingoane said only five eligible families from the initial group received RDP houses “because most of the residents of the building are not eligible for housing”. He did not respond to additional questions about when the City planned to help residents.

Linda G. Ibarra