Johannesburg - A protracted 15-year battle has ended in victory for the residents of Kensington who have been fighting to stop a backpackers hostel from doing business in the upmarket suburb of 5000 households east of Joburg.
The Diamond Diggers Backpackers has been operating from 36 Doris Street and 25 Empress Street, premises not zoned for business, since 2005 despite fierce protests by residents.
Now the May 21 order by the Joburg High Court requires the owners of the property to demolish several illegal buildings on the stands at their own cost within 14 days of the serving of the order by the city council - probably in the second week in June.
On Thursday, chairperson of the Kensington Residents and Ratepayers Association (KRRA) André Grobler said he expected delivery of the order “any minute now”.
A resident who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals said they endured a long period of torture at the house she has lived in for 27 years.
The ruckus from the hostel from the unending guest traffic and the roar of diesel buses ferrying them has shattered the tranquillity of the once quiet neighbourhood.
In its court papers, the KRRA said the establishment accommodated up to 43 long- and short-term paying guests in addition to staff who live on the premises.
And none of them was averse to partying and kicking up a noise.
Operating with impunity, the Diamond Diggers Backpackers has violated every conceivable municipal by-law, including erecting four additional cottages on the property without the requisite approval.
The resident pointed to the hostel’s flouting of waste disposal rules and the sewerage problems it had as among the reasons it was an eyesore.
Other problems experienced by neighbours were the hostel’s dumping of building rubble in the service lane, its endangerment of neighbouring houses through its lack of fire prevention systems, and unhygienic conditions caused by the regular overflow of refuse from the bins.
The owners also do not provide parking for their guests/tenants, which causes severe congestion, she said.
She recalled the countless times they had to call the police to quell the noise, often to no avail.
She carried a bag laden with documented proof of their nightmarish fight against the illegal business.
The peace sought would eventually come when the hostel stopped operating in an area that is not zoned for business, said Grobler, who hastened to add that they were not against anyone earning an honest living.
“The KRRA has shown that home owners and residents have the power to force the city to act when it turns its back on its own laws and fails to safeguard the rights of citizens.
“This is not an isolated instance and the problem is not confined to Kensington. In many residential areas of Joburg illegal businesses are springing up, infringing building and trading laws, causing a disturbance and threatening the value of homes families have often struggled to acquire,” Grobler said.
The KRRA has repeatedly assisted residents to report infringements of building and zoning laws.
It has a database of more than 100 such complaints.
The municipal authorities have failed to take decisive action to stop the businesses operating or demolish illegal structures.
The association approached the court as a last resort to protect residents’ rights, said Grobler.
“It is a groundbreaking win for Kensington residents as it is the first time the association has successfully appealed to the courts to force the City of Joburg to enforce the by-laws.
“We hope to arrest urban decline in the neighbourhood and surrounding areas,” he said.
For some reason, the city council has been unable to close down the hostel and Kensington residents were often told of lost files regarding the case. Grobler recalled that in December 2016, the City of Joburg inspected the hostel compound after a KRRA complaint and ordered it to cease operating in contravention of zoning requirements.
In February 2017, city officials reinvestigated and found that the owners of the property defied the earlier notices issued.
Also, more buildings were being constructed on the site without submission of building plans. This construction continued despite an additional council notice to cease building.
“Given the authorities’ inaction, the KRRA asked the court to monitor the situation to ensure that this time the illegal activity at this location is finally stopped.
“We are thrilled the court order compels the city to continue inspecting the property at random times and file reports on compliance to the court,” said Kgomotso Modise, former chairperson and the applicant in the legal action.
They all agreed that Kensington had become a wonderfully diverse suburb, a status quo they hoped to keep.
“It is a charming heritage neighbourhood with affordable entry-level homes and good public facilities - state schools of the highest standard, lovely parks and sports amenities.
“It is an area that helps advance the integration of the city, that contributes to the erasure of the apartheid legacy. We cannot allow something so valuable to be degraded and destroyed by bureaucratic inertia in enforcing sound planning principles,” said Modise.