When her adoptive mother died intestate, Busi* had no idea her own family would try to take the only home she had known.
Just 21, she was threatened with eviction letters and dragged through the courts. Her furniture was taken and people were brought to live in the house without her consent.
For years Busi lived in fear that one day her adoptive mother’s nephew – who saw himself as the dead woman’s rightful heir – would succeed in kicking her out of her home.
He approached the police to help evict Busi and two children, one of them disabled, whom her adoptive mother had been fostering. He told the courts that Busi had not been officially adopted and that his aunt had taken her in as an act of charity. And with no records to show that she was indeed adopted, Busi had steeled herself to expect the worst.
But last week she received good news. The Johannesburg High Court named her as the rightful heir.
She is relieved, but scarred. The incident has left her faith in people shaken, but she has also learnt an important lesson.
“Familiarise yourself with the law and know about wills, so that when you die the people you leave behind know how to proceed from there,” she said.
“I believe that if my mother had adopted me legally, I would not have gone through all that. But as a child, how do you ask your mother those questions?”
Busi, 26, started living with her adoptive mother, her biological mother’s distant relative, from the age of four in an agreement with her biological mother. At some point, her adoptive mother – with the consent of her biological mother – changed Busi’s surname to her own.
“She put me through school and did everything a mother could do for her child,” she said.
“I knew no other mother. She was my mother and I even called her ‘Mama’.”
The woman died intestate in 2006, leaving behind Busi and the two children.
The trouble erupted in 2008 when her adoptive mother’s nephew broke the door and took one of the fridges. When they opened a case with the police, they found that the nephew had the title deed stating he was the rightful owner of the house.
In December, he returned and ordered all of them out, including the uncle, who had moved in with the youngsters. They also received an eviction notice giving them 14 days to move.
“In the papers, he had written that we are tenants who now don’t want to leave his house,” said Busi.
As time went on, evaluators started arriving at the house. The nephew also brought two relatives to stay at the house. Two more eviction notices and a court summons arrived.
“In court he said I had not been legally adopted, and that my mother had just been charitable towards me and had no intention of adopting me,” she said. “Hearing him say that really hurt me, but what could I do?”
Although the court ruled that the nephew was the deceased woman’s closest relative, it could not rule whether he or Busi was the rightful heir.
The Socio-Economic Rights Institute of SA, which represented Busi, applied for the matter to be heard at the high court. It argued that although Busi had not been adopted in terms of the Child Care Act, she had been adopted in terms of customary law. In terms of the Customary Law and Succession Act, it said, customary adoption practices were recognised and protected.
Busi won the case and was declared the rightful heir.
Teboho Mosikili, the attorney acting for Busi, said the institute was happy about the judgment.
“Our client fully deserves to be treated as her adoptive mother’s heir, and has experienced many years of pain and insecurity after her mother’s death. We are all very happy that her claim to be recognised as her mother’s descendant has been upheld.”
Although relieved that she won’t be homeless, Busi said she hoped that the chapter was closed and that the man did not appeal.
“That is my fear, but I have learnt that you can’t even trust your own family,” she said.
*Not her real name.