Women are easy targets of bully landlords
More women are unemployed (31.3%) than men. The imbalance continues to deepen, with men still at the helm of the socio-economic sphere, commanding power as landowners and landlords.
More women than men have to bear witness to their homes being demolished and their personal belongings destroyed by force, with or without court orders, often with no alternative accommodation and without security of tenure. Women, as tenants, bear the brunt as mothers, wives, partners, sisters, daughters, widows, divorcees, and the many other roles they find themselves in.
Unscrupulous landlords see women as soft targets for illegal disconnection of basic services and lockouts. Many older people, especially women, have to survive on a meagre pension, most of which goes towards rent. They are most vulnerable to being displaced and rendered homeless with their children and grandchildren.
A case in point was a landowner who acquired ownership of a property in Isipingo. He threatened his tenant with an illegal lockout because she refused to move out. She did not receive a notice cancelling her monthly tenancy and did not breach her lease in any way. The new owner, while a senior member of the SAPS, seemed indifferent to the legal requirements relating to lease contracts. His attitude to the single mother, who was a diligent rent payer, was “move out or you will be locked out!”
Another incident of chauvinism involved a single mother who rented a Durban beachfront flat. She, her pensioner mother and young son who lived with her, were shocked when her landlord walked into the flat and removed her personal belongings in the presence of three policemen.
According to the tenant, he then disconnected the flat’s electricity supply while his “police friends”, who accompanied him, sat in the lounge eating takeaways.
She subsequently obtained an interdict to have the electricity reconnected and her personal items returned to her.
The sheriff was told the landlord had gone abroad for a few weeks, preventing him from effecting service of the court order.
An owner can become homeless too, with no legal help to challenge a breach of contract. Take the case of a woman who sold her property at a reduced price out of desperation to make ends meet. One of the terms of the sale was that she would live in the outbuilding until she decided to leave.
She occupied the outbuilding, undisturbed for a while, until she spurned the new owner’s advances. She was eventually locked out of the property and had to live in a shelter for the homeless.
We have come a long way from the time of Lilian Ngoyi, who was arrested for using facilities in a post office that were reserved for whites, and for her courageous activism, with other women, on August 9, 1956.
On this day, Ngoyi led a women’s anti-pass march to the Union Buildings in Pretoria. In November that year, Ngoyi was vocal in her belief that the apartheid government would not prevent women in their march towards freedom.
Sixty-three years later, we take our freedom for granted, but many men are still treating women with disrespect, and physical and mental abuse.
Men continue to dominate women - their space, their dignity and freedom, defined by their misogynistic whims presented as laws, God’s laws or cultural dogmas to which women are subjected and subjugated. Men continue to believe that they are God’s chosen ones.
Discrimination, greed and disregard for human dignity cannot be changed by the Constitution. The change must come from within, and until then women will be second-class citizens. In Government of the RSA v Grootboom 2001 (1) SA 46 (CC), the Constitutional Court, in interpreting Section 26(1) of the Constitution, points out there is, at the very least, “a negative obligation placed upon the State, and all other entities and persons, to desist from preventing or impairing the right of access to adequate housing”. Women are the most vulnerable group when the rights to housing are considered.
Durban, like other major South African cities, has warehouses and abandoned commercial properties converted for residential accommodation, occupied by self-employed individuals and families. These “sweatshops” or “workhouses” provide cubicles divided by thin walls made of flimsy materials, to allow for a multitude of “units” within a floor. Tenants are squeezed in like sardines, with perhaps a single tap and one ablution facility (toilet) servicing about 300 people.
Women are the main occupiers in these buildings. When the month of August ends, will there be any change for women in South Africa?
Women will remain homeless, struggling as tenants to meet rental demands, living in shacks and forced to share small spaces in inner city buildings after this month. Disconnection of basic services and illegal lockouts will continue. Apartheid is officially dead, but there are men who are still the gatekeepers of inequality and misogyny. Women bear the brunt.
As we observe women’s month, to raise awareness of the inequalities that still exist and gender-based violence as a human rights issue, tenants’ rights are not considered part of human rights.
Women, as a marginalised group, suffer as tenants at the hands of bigotry, and their right of occupancy is further complicated by customary and non-monogamous marriages.
Are we mere observers against the powerful patriarchal societies we live in, or are we willing to make the change within ourselves to recognise women in their own right and respect their human dignity?
Dr Sayed Iqbal Mohamed is the chairperson of the Organisation of Civic Rights and deputy chairperson of the KZN Rental Housing Tribunal. He writes in his personal capacity. For advice, contact Pretty Gumede or Loshni Naidoo at 0313046451/[email protected] or [email protected]