The hijack city
Criminals involved in hijacking dilapidated buildings in the Johannesburg inner city are operating with impunity – in some cases even opening up bank accounts to siphon off rent money destined for the buildings’ owners.
A month-long City Press investigation has found that as many as 400 buildings in the city have been systematically stolen from their owners and taken over by so-called “committees”.
Residents claim the City of Johannesburg has turned a blind eye to their plight despite being handed vital information they could use to start criminal proceedings.
The problem, which spans the city quadrant defined as Region F, is costing property owners and government millions of rands monthly in unpaid rentals and municipal bills.
A source in the city council said cases only came to their attention once people complained, and even then, usually only after their services were cut.
He said: “The difficult part is when the owner is not complaining,” and added that the city did not have a database specifying which of the 1?300 classified “bad buildings” had been hijacked.
According to Hawks spokesperson Musa Zondi, building hijacking has a far-reaching impact because it happens more frequently in cities that drive the economy.
One highly placed source close to the task team set up by the Hawks to investigate building hijackings said people involved often operate as syndicates and are involved in sophisticated forms of white-collar crime including money laundering and tax evasion.
He said: “It’s more than just a couple of guys. You even get cases of criminals getting into the Cipro (companies register) and changing company directorhips to put their names there.”
Zondi concurred that organised crime forms the “core” of building hijackings.
According to the Friends of the Inner City Forum, which assists inner city residents with housing issues, the city’s administration is also part of the problem.
The forum’s spokesperson, Moses ka Moyo, said: “There’s this huge myth that people in Hillbrow don’t pay rent. They do, it just never gets to the owner.”
He showed City Press a copy of a letter sent earlier this year to the council from residents of Dolphin Square in Hillbrow.
Despite a traceable owner, the building was hijacked two years ago and is now managed by a committee.
The municipal account reflects arrears of nearly R5?million but the building continues to receive water and electricity.
The letter contains the banking details of the committee, into which nearly R84?000 is deposited monthly by the 544 residents and shop owners.
In the letter, residents plead for the mayor and police to intervene, saying they have been bullied and intimidated by committee members since April, when they were advised to pay their rent to the City of Johannesburg. The letter has not been acknowledged.
One of the residents, who spoke to City Press on condition of anonymity, said she was now paying her bills directly to the municipality. She said the committee had threatened to cut her lights since she stopped paying them.
During the interview, an old woman on crutches came into the office requesting assistance. She said she had fallen from a height in the building she lived in after a snake was thrown at her by a committee member.
City Press is in possession of a mountain of correspondence sent by the forum to the office of mayor Amos Masondo as well as to the city’s legal department over three years – providing, among other things, banking details of the committees.
Many of the buildings City Press visited were in an advanced state of disrepair and some had had no municipal services for more than a year.
In some cases, services have been cut off due to non-payment, even though residents pay rent and levies every month. But others, like one building in Plein Street continue to get water and electricity, despite outstanding municipal accounts running into the millions.
The forum said some of the hijackers are in cahoots with corrupt officials at Johannesburg Water and City Power.
In May 2008, for instance, the residents of a hijacked inner city building, Arma Court, wrote to City Power complaining about the dangers posed by illegal electricy connections in the building. They attached the consumer disconnection card from the city reflecting arrears in excess of R779?000.
The city’s power utility reportedly did nothing to solve the problem and the building’s committee continues its reign.
Contacted for comment, a woman in the offices of the manager responsible for Region F, Nathi Mthethwa, said these were “sensitive matters” on which neither Mthethwa nor the task team could comment.
She said: “They’ve all been sworn to secrecy at this point.”
All cases under investigation by the task team are still in court and are yet to be finalised.