Human Settlements Ombudsman Themba Mthethwa at the official launch of the Community Schemes Ombud Service held in Rosebank, Joburg. Picture: Dumisani Sibeko/ANA Pictures
Softly-spoken and doggedly committed to the cause, Human Settlements Ombudsman (HSO) Themba Mthethwa has been in office since April last year, working under tight constraints to mediate in all matters relating to housing.

The office of the HSO has not benefited from some of the media fanfare that’s been directed at some of the other ombud schemes. And yet, the human rights lawyer and his tiny team deserve more support for the vital, free service that they are offering consumers and others done in by government housing entities.

Mthethwa, who was the Community Schemes Ombudsman for three years after he left his chief executive position at the Public Protector (where he served alongside both Thuli Madonsela and Lawrence Mushwana), has a wealth of experience in various government sectors, having worked for Transnet, the City of Cape Town and the South African Local Government Association, and served as an executive at Legal Aid SA’s Justice Centre.

Set up during Lindiwe Sisulu’s tenure as housing minister, the ombud’s mandate is to provide an alternative dispute resolution (ADR) service to deal with issues between contractors, provinces and municipalities - and “any complaints within the human settlements family”.

Housing consumers and contractors are therefore also able to take their complaints against the National Home Builders Registration Council, the Estate Agency Affairs Board, BNG housing (subsidised housing) and provincial and national human settlements departments to the ombud.

Since inception, the HSO has investigated more than 700 cases: at least 60 are pending, 370 are closed and the other applications are at various stages of investigation. Housing issues brought to the Public Protector are now immediately referred to the ombud.

While most of the cases brought to his office have related to housing applications, title deeds and non-payment of contractors, among others, Mthethwa says two in particular have touched him.

The first related to a church in Mabopane, Tshwane: it had bought a stand on which to build a church, but the land was zoned for residential, not business development; the community refused to allow the church to occupy the land and there was an urgent need to start building.

“We negotiated a deal which became a win-win situation when the church swopped the land not designated for worship for land (more suitable) with the help of the municipality,” Mthethwa explains.

Although that was a tough case, it was eventually resolved, but the pressing needs of Thulani Sibisi, a past Two Oceans Marathon winner and Barcelona Olympics long-distance athlete trainer, haunt Mthethwa.

Sibisi, who has advanced cancer, had bought a house in Orlando West, Soweto next to the Walter Sisulu family home with R500 000 cash from his life savings. He has never moved in, though, because the occupant has simply refused to vacate and has backing from community members.

Seeff, the estate agency that sold him the house, approached the high court for an eviction, which was granted. When the sheriff arrived to evict the occupant, a group of local women blocked the eviction, demanding to know where the woman occupant would go.

“We met with the ward councillor in trying to mediate, but the lady illegal occupant refused to meet with us to assess whether she qualifies for an RDP house. She was charged for trespassing but acquitted. We are still working on the matter. Seeff are currently renting Sibisi a one-room place with outside ablution facilities on the outskirts of Soweto.

“We met with the police, who told us this happens everywhere in the township, and even if we evict again, they can't guarantee the safety of Mr Sibisi.”

There has been significant interest and support for his treatment from the international running community, but Sibisi is still in the rental house.

“This is one of the horrible cases, but I will solve it.”

Mthethwa says until key legislation is passed by Parliament, outlining the ombud’s powers, co-operation with the HSO is non-obligatory and the office is in limbo. It desperately needs more resources, expertise, government support and its own premises. Currently, its staff are scattered throughout Human Settlements and it’s reliant on departmental staff.

At the launch of the ombud scheme, the minister said her department would advertise for the position of a deputy ombudsman because of the “enormity of the responsibilities”. That is yet to happen, because it hasn’t been budgeted for, and Sisulu - who appointed the effective Military Ombudsman while she headed the Defence Department, was replaced by Nomaindia Mfeketo in February, so the ombud project has lost some momentum.

“Our decisions are not binding yet, but the whole Human Settlements sector has agreed to abide by them. So when we reach a settlement between a complainant and the department they will support and abide,” Mthethwa says.

* Georgina Crouth is a consumer watchdog with serious bite. Write to her at [email protected], tweet her @georginacrouth