Guns, threats, and fraud: How criminals hijack Joburg’s buildings

Building hijackers allow properties – like this one in the Durban CBD that was emptied by police earlier this year – to fall into decay, all while collecting rent from the tenants: Picture: Doctor Ngcobo

Building hijackers allow properties – like this one in the Durban CBD that was emptied by police earlier this year – to fall into decay, all while collecting rent from the tenants: Picture: Doctor Ngcobo

Published Sep 1, 2023


Residential buildings that are not well managed or maintained are easy targets for hijackers who use intimidation and force to take control.

Before moving in, they suss out the operations of the buildings and those who are in charge, and may even apply for leases to get a foot in the door.

Once in, that’s when the problems start; they stop paying for any services and allow the buildings to decay.

But the people who live inside Johannesburg’s hijacked buildings are not squatters. They pay rent every month to those they initially believed to be the building owners or managers, but who are not.

The city’s hijacked building crisis has been thrown into the spotlight following Thursday’s inferno that killed 76 people, but the issue is not a new one, nor is it a secret. Rather, it appears to be a scourge that those with the power to address are either unwilling, or too scared, to.

Sharing the ordeal of one Johannesburg property owner, Angela Rivers, general manager for the Johannesburg Property Owners and Managers Association (JPOMA), outlines how buildings are hijacked in the inner city, and why the problem has become difficult to control.

Fifteen years ago, this particular owner – for ease of reference we’ll call him Mr X, purchased a property in the vicinity of a taxi rank with the intention to create a residential and business precinct in the area. The building was occupied and well-managed. There were also other well-run apartment blocks and businesses in the area.

Around the time of the property transfer, the seller died. Her son then moved into the building and started to take over the management of it. Mr X believed that the management of the building would continue as it had been, but the deceased seller’s son was not doing a good job. This obviously started to reflect in the state of the building’s infrastructure. A hijacking syndicate then moved in and threw him out, literally.

“The syndicate went to each individual tenant and told them they had purchased the building from the owners. They told the tenants that, going forward, rent needed to be paid to them. The tenants did not know any different so started paying rent to the hijackers.”

When Mr X discovered what was happening, he went to the building but was met at the gate by men with guns. They told him they owned the building. He left and reported it to the police. However, Rivers says the police couldn’t do anything.

“They are so lethargic when it comes to hijackings.”

He then started the eviction process but, unfortunately, in order for the residents to be evicted, the City had to provide them alternate accommodation, which it could not. Mr X, himself, then decided to develop another of his buildings into an alternate accommodation property for the City, but it pulled out of the arrangement. Thus, he was left with no choice but to serve eviction notices on the tenants. A decade and a half later, the situation was still not resolved so the tenants were each eventually offered a cash payment to vacate the building, which they did.

“The building is now gutted. There is not even a pipe or cable left. It took cleaners one-and-a-half months to clean the building, and at a cost of R400,000.”

Rivers says the property was purchased for R8m but all the other money that would have been invested into it has been lost through legal fees. Mr X is now selling it for R3,5m on condition that the outstanding water and electricity costs can be paid off.

However, there will also be a challenge to these costs because the City carried out a Level 3 disconnection on the property when it was hijacked, which means that the water and electricity infrastructure was removed so that these utilities could not physically be provided. Still, the City has been charging estimated costs for these resources for 15 years.

Mr X did continue paying rates through this period.

Stories of hijacked buildings in Joburg

Generally, Rivers explains, hijackers target buildings that appear to be in bad states and not well-maintained. They will “check it out” and start asking questions in order to get an idea of how it is run. In many cases, they will even sign leases as a way of gaining legitimate access to the apartments.

Once in, they take control of the building and tenants by claiming to be the owners. They produce fraudulent title deeds as proof, if needed. If the tenants refuse to pay the rent to the hijackers, they kick them out.

“They either give them new bank account details to pay their rent into or tell them they have to pay cash. The hijackers then stop paying for water and electricity.”

The tenants eventually realise what is going on. Some are able to move out but others have no choice but to keep living in these buildings. Some are even forced to pay rents higher than what the living accommodation is worth.

To explain why many cannot move out, Rivers shares a story of two Zimbabwean sisters who lived in a hijacked building 20 years ago: “They lived in a two-bedroom flat, but the one room was divided into four with the use of sheets that were hung from the ceiling. They were paying R600 a week for their space back then.”

The women were not illegal immigrants and had work permits. The problem though, for them and many others, is that they did not have pay slips, usually due to the nature of work they do, such as domestic work.

“They had a bank account but it didn’t help that they did not have payslips. Without such documentation, tenants will not get approved for leases in good buildings, so are forced to rent homes in those that are badly-run because there are no stringent checks done.”

Rivers adds that illegal immigrants who have no documentation or people who have criminal backgrounds also rent in such buildings, for the same reasons.

The story of the former Cape York building in Johannesburg’s Jeppe Street – which also descended into squalor before a deadly fire in 2017 killed seven people – paints a clear picture of a building hijacker’s modus operandi.

The building, Rivers says, was owned by a Mozambican bank but was fraudulently transferred to an unknown person who was listed on the title deed. The building decayed and “waste was spilling out of the windows”.

A two-year-long legal process eventually had the building ownership transferred back to the bank. It was sold to a new developer but then the fire broke out.

The building has since been developed into student accommodation, Focus1.

Although buildings that eventually become hijacked are not necessarily in bad conditions when they are purchased, some investors do choose to buy properties that are already being occupied by hijackers. Because the buildings are high risk and the infrastructure is destroyed, they can be bought for half their values, she says.

Cases like this, however, are rare, and many buyers who have taken the risk end up regretting their decisions. They underestimate the expense and trouble to get the tenants and hijackers evicted.

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