Hijacked buildings reclaimed at gunpoint

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 October, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 October, 2004, 12:00am

Tenants from hell are hijacking entire buildings in Johannesburg and landlords are fighting back by hiring squads to drive out the invaders at gunpoint.

Hijacking of buildings has become increasingly common, with criminal gangs usurping landlords, collecting the rentals for themselves and threatening anyone, even public officials, who try to get them evicted.

In one recent incident a Johannesburg property agent managing an empty building that was up for sale arrived one morning to find it full of people.

Sean Borrill says the 'new owners' had packed tenants into a building originally designed as an office block.

Rooms were being rented out for R400 a month, for a space that could take only a mattress and a chair. There were no bathrooms, and dozens of people on each floor had to share toilets.

'It was a warehouse and office space and is not geared for residential living,' says Mr Borrill.

The water and electricity bill reached R12,000 within weeks of the illegal occupation, and the Johannesburg metropolitan council has refused to cut off services. Property owners can apply to the courts to evict building pirates but this can take years and is expensive. Now some landlords are hiring security companies to do the work for them.

'Anybody can employ anybody to do the job,' says Kobus Theron, property administer at Compeg properties. 'If you go the legal route, you don't get results quickly.'

Some landlords now routinely send in armed squads to force tenants to hand over rents, or evict them from the building. Once a building is cleared, guards are used to keep invaders from returning.

'They use violence to take our property so we must use violence to get it back,' says one Johannesburg landlord.