This was the first in a series of articles published in the Sunday Tribune on Durban’s slum buildings problem. It was a heart-wrenching story to tell and to witness. Seeing what conditions these people live brought me to the verge of tears – and seeing how the landlords and agents that ran the building just allowed it to happen made my blood boil with anger.
Here’s the first piece we wrote, and there are others to follow. Published in the Sunday Tribune on page 5 (for first edition) and on page 6 (for second edition).
LANDLORDS CASH IN ON DESPERATE
Matthew Savides & Mitchell Harper
DURBAN businessmen are making hundreds of thousands of rand a month operating slum buildings across the city centre.
At least 60 buildings in Durban have been identified as illegally converted into accommodation, where people – mostly foreigners – live in unsafe, cramped, rat-infested conditions and cubicles cost about R1 000 a month.
The bigger buildings are yielding as much as R300 000 a month, while most account for about R40 000. As many as six people sleep in cubicles between 3m and 6m wide. The SA Revenue Service recently got involved because of the potential tax implications – most of the payments are in cash.
Hoosen Moolla, head of the Inner City eThekwini Regeneration and Urban Management Programme (iTrump), said the buildings contravened dozens of city by-laws.
“They (the owners and managing agents) are making a lot of money from this illegal activity. There are also safety and security risks to the public and residents of the buildings,” he told the Tribune in an exclusive interview this week.
Inspector Dean Nieuwoudt of the Special Projects Task Team, established to look into the issue, said a number of names cropped up repeatedly in investigations.
Four owners and managing agents are allegedly responsible for at least nine of the city’s problem buildings:
– Ahmed Kazi, who owns one of the buildings.
– Dawood Clifford, a managing agent for two buildings.
– Sakoor Khan, a managing agent for four buildings.
– Yakoob Ally, a managing agent for two buildings and the co-owner of at least one other.
All the men have been charged with various infringements and paid admission of guilt fines.
On Friday, officials took reporters and a photographer to a building in Umgeni Road, owned by a CC in which prominent Durban businessman Ashwin Trikamjee has a significant share. The building has Ally as its managing agent.
Trikamjee told the Tribune: “I can’t discuss this matter in any detail, because it’s the subject of a high court application. We are unhappy with the tenant (Ally) and want the court to give us an order to remove him from the building.”
Clifford denied the accusations against him, saying his buildings – at 275 Yusuf Dadoo (Grey) Street and 85 Bertha Mkhize (Victoria) Street – were not in a bad condition.
“You can come see for yourself what it’s like at my buildings; you can speak to the tenants. My buildings are clean. I even have a supervisor on the floor of each building responsible for keeping it clean. We have cameras and 24-hour security, so at least the people feel safe there,” he said.
Clifford added that his father-in-law, who owns the buildings, was spending R450 000 to fix the Bertha Mkhize Street property.
“I went to a lot of slum buildings and saw the conditions people were living in. My buildings are not like that. My places are better than all the others. There’s no oppression. People come of their own free will. We charge R1 200 a cubicle in which, say, three people stay. So it’s R400 each, and that includes water, electricity, security, everything.
“These people earn minimum wages and won’t get a flat earning so little,” he said.
He said his arrest at the end of June, when his daughter was present, was “unnecessary”. He was bundled into a police van while his daughter was in his car.
Clifford also accused the city of ignoring other problems. “What about the hostels? Have you been in there? They’re terrible, and those are government buildings. Why don’t they arrest the people in charge of those places?”
However, he admitted that he hadn’t gone through the “right channels”.
“We are going through the processes to get all the licences we need. We are going to cooperate with officials to get the fire and all other licences. I know we need them,” he said.
The other businessmen were more reluctant to speak.
Asked to comment on the allegation that he runs city slums, Ally said, “I have no comment” and hung up the phone.
Khan referred to comments he made to the Daily News in an article published on July 1.In that article he denied being a dodgy landlord.
“I’m just a businessman trying to make a living. I pay the electricity and water bills to the city on time. Yes, there are a few things I need to sort out. But I am willing to work with them,” he said.
In the same article, he denied making massive profits.
“I drive around in a little car. If I was making a lot of money, surely I would be driving something fancier,” he said.
It is not known how many people live in these conditions, but the chairman of the Organisation of Civic Rights, Sayed Iqbal Mohamed, estimated there could be 12 000. He likened the slum buildings to “sweat shops”.
“Several hundred people share a few communal ablutions in one building. The cubicles are in former commercial buildings and warehouses, illegally converted by unscrupulous landlords.
“Tenants are vulnerable to eviction, poor living conditions and unlawful deprivation of their rights,” he said.
Moolla said that many owners would blame the managingagents and deny knowledge of what was happening at their properties. But he said this claim was invalid.
“Ultimately, the owners are responsible for what goes on in their buildings. They need to know what is happening there. They can’t plead that they didn’t know the building was used for some illegal purpose. So, when we charge people, we charge the owner and the person leasing the building,” he said.
The commander of the Special Projects Task Team, advocate Aubrey Mthethwa, agreed. “The owners and agents try to hide behind the moral argument that people need accommodation and they are providing that accommodation. But that is not an argument. You can’t have people living in these terrible conditions. It’s immoral.”
Mthethwa and Moolla said their hands were tied by legislation and inadequate fines. Many of the people involved have been charged and paid admission of guilt fines, but these were considerably less than the money made from such an illegal undertaking.
“We need to review the charges. The fines need to be increased to an extent that they actually become deterrents,” Moolla said.
Mthethwa said it was frustrating to see such conditions. “They are exploiting the vulnerable. They see people are desperate and take advantage of this,” he said.
DA caucus leader Tex Collins was also outraged. “They exploit people who desperately need homes. It’s obvious there are illegal structures in these buildings which contravene by-laws and they don’t provide ablution or toilet facilities,” he said.
Collins said his party was compiling a notice of motion to be tabled before the city’s full council, demanding that legislation be changed to punish those involved.
“We need to do something, even if it requires an act of Parliament,” he said.