The case against banks' abusive home repossession practices
The campaign started with a mass picket outside the South Gauteng High Court on September 14.
Lungelo Lethu (“Our Rights”) Human Rights Foundation is assisting thousands of people unlawfully evicted from their homes by the banks.
I have a long history of struggle against oppression. I was the architect of a 1986 case that defeated the apartheid government’s attempts to evict black South Africans from their homes as a result of the rent boycott which had swept through the townships in protest against race discrimination.
What we are witnessing now at the hands of the banks is far more severe than the apartheid-era evictions in their scale and impact.
It became impossible to defend individually the thousands of people who had been evicted by the banks and who came to us for help.
For this reason we decided to invest our efforts in a group action suit involving more than 225 applicants and take it straight to the Constitutional Court as a matter of overriding public interest.
The Lungelo Lethu Human Rights Foundation was the main architect of a recently launched R60 billion Constitutional Court case against the major lending banks for their abusive home repossession practices.
More than 220 applicants in the case had their homes repossessed by the banks and sold for a fraction of their worth at sheriffs’ auctions.
It is estimated that more than 100 000 homes have been repossessed by the banks since 1994, and the figure of R60bn is an estimate of the loss of home equity value by those whose properties were repossessed by the banks.
Many of the evictees have ended up in shanty towns with no hope of reintegration into the economy.
By launching this campaign we are sending a message to the government and the courts that home evictions must stop. The system is riddled with irregularities.
Homes must be sold for market value, and our message to judges is this: on behalf of the people of South Africa, you are expected to discharge your responsibilities with reasonableness and due care. Your judgments must be just and equitable.
Instead, we find lazy, reckless and irrational decisions from some judges who do not apply their minds to the facts of each case as they are required to do by the law of the land.
What reasonable judge would sign a court order permitting a repossessed property to be sold for R10 to the same bank that lent the money to the home owner?
This is reckless and dangerous. It is also unlawful, and yet it has happened thousands of times.
In more than half the cases we have investigated, the banks have flouted the law, and the courts are sanctioning this behaviour.
More than 80% of the court cases in South Africa relate to banks, so this is something that we are now paying close attention to.
South Africa has a shocking history of forced removals and evictions, only this time it is the banks, not the government, behind the mass evictions.
The Lungelo Lethu Human Rights Foundation has evidence of more than 900 cases where homes were bought at auction for less than R100, often by the lending bank itself.
This is made possible by high court rules that allow repossessed homes to be sold at sheriffs’ auctions without a reserve price.
This is more than a fraud. It is a gross human rights abuse.
If our constitution is to have any meaning, these outrageous abuses must be stopped without delay.
So we are calling on the government to bring an immediate halt to all home evictions, and within one year to introduce new legislation to force repossessed homes to be sold at market value.
The campaign also calls for:
– An end to inconsistent judgments, where essentially the same facts in a case result in different judgments, thereby making a mockery of the law.
– Adherence to human rights-based judgments already handed down by the Constitutional Court such as the Gondwana and Grootboom cases.
The Gondawana judgment theoretically puts an end to the practice of banks writing their own court orders and having them stamped by the court registrar, without ever presenting the facts of the case to a judge.
The Grootboom case requires local government to find alternative accommodation for evictees.
– A police investigation and commission of inquiry into criminal syndicates operating between the banks, sheriffs’ offices and property investors.
The Foundation investigations revealed insider knowledge of repossessed properties banks being passed by individuals in the banks to property investors, who then collude at sheriffs’ auctions to artificially lower the price of the property being sold at an auction.
– An investigation into why credit life-insurance policies, which are supposed to be paid to cover the outstanding bond amount in the event that the home owner dies or loses his/her job, are not being honoured.
– Why the buildings purchased (during the time of late housing minister Joe Slovo) for inner-city sectional-title projects have all been hijacked by criminal elements.
This is by no means a one-off campaign. We are going countrywide and we already have plans for the next mass action campaign. There are tens of thousands of South Africans affected by banking malpractice, with the support of the courts.
We have had huge support for this campaign, and the people are demanding that we now step up the pressure to bring banks under the same rule of law as the rest of us.
* Sibiya is the founder and president of the Lungelo Letho Human Rights Foundation.