Land reform: Going nowhere slowly in Alexandra

16 July 2009
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Alexandra, like many other former “native locations”, has a long and complicated history. Vakele Richard Mbalukwana describes how his parents bought their home during World War II: “The neighbourhood was upper-middle class blacks with decent homes. People made improvements to their homes. They built modern houses for those times; they used to look at Bramley and Yeoville and copy the architectural designs.”

Vakele still lives in the house that his parents bought in 1943. Today he is treasurer and spokesperson of Alexandra Property Owners Rights (APOR), an organisation of “aspiring property owners” with over one thousand members.

Proclaimed a native township in 1912, Alex was one of the few places where blacks could own property. But, in 1958, the municipality expropriated the area, reducing property owners to tenants. Twenty-five years later the properties were “sold back” to residents, but not with freehold title. Vakele refused to buy back the property, although he still lives there today. His neighbour, Ethel Mngomezulu, did complete an “application to purchase existing property in Alexandra” and received a deed of sale receipt.

Today all residents of Alex live without secure property rights – a situation that has led to the physical deterioration of Alex, as well as instances of violent xenophobia. Although some residents did receive monetary compensation as part of a claim with the Land Rights Commission, former property owners are still fighting for freehold title.

Before the 1958 expropriation, many Alex property owners received an income from tenants who rented small rooms at the back of their properties. Job seekers, hoping to find work in Johannesburg, often stayed in Alexandra, if only temporarily. Upon arriving in Johannesburg, Nelson Mandela rented a single room in Alexandra. But, when, in 1958, the municipality became the sole property owner, those former Alex property owners lost not only their landlord status and therefore their tenant rents, but were forced to pay rents themselves to the municipality.

The loss of tenant income contributed to the economic decline of Alex. Uncertainty surrounding property rights stifled investment in the community: unsure about the future of the properties, families no longer made the same improvements to their homes. Vakele contends that if individuals had secure freehold title, there would be many more day care centres, grocery stores and other small businesses.

Residents have good reason to doubt the security of their properties. In several sites in Alex, the municipal government ordered families to leave in preparation for demolition. Homes have been torn down to make way for a heritage centre. Although such projects are intended “for the community”, they are undertaken without proper community consultation or compensation for the loss of property. A court order in January 2009 though has put a halt to the confiscation of properties.

Without freehold title, residents of Alex have greater difficulty accessing commercial loans. Resident Mandla Mhlanga, chairperson of APOR, explains that people would use banks to take out loans if they had freehold titles to their properties. “Today, if you borrow money from your family, it might take a year to build a roof. If you had a loan from a bank it would happen much faster.”

The insecurity of property rights upholds racial discrimination, economic subordination and, as recent events have shown, has contributed to violence and an increase in crime in Alex. There is growing tension between former property owners and former tenants. Former property owners are upset because dozens of people now effectively squat on their properties. Many of the squatters are foreigners.

Without freehold title Alexandra has become a free-for-all. Doreen, an elderly woman who inherited a double lot property from her parents, estimates that over 100 people currently occupy the land. She has no way of monitoring who is coming and going. Last December, five men attacked Doreen on her way to church. Community members say that the men were brought to justice.

Municipal planners are reluctant to allow freehold title because they believe this will lead to the eviction of tenants. However, a return to freehold title would not mean the expulsion of the squatters, says Vakele. “We need people there. We need to have rent-paying tenants.”

The Alexandra Renewal Project (ARP) is part of the government's urban renewal programme and has been involved in many different development projects in Alex including the construction of RDP homes, new school buildings and a shopping centre. ARP has met with APOR to discuss housing and has suggested that former property owners should become stakeholders in the development company, which constructs and owns new apartment buildings in the community. Thus far, ARP refuses to allow freehold title to former property owners.

Since the 1960s, residents of Alex have been fighting for freehold title. The new government is perpetuating apartheid land policies by denying freehold title to former property owners in Alex.

“People are dying of depression in Alex,” says Vakele.

Author Laura Grube, a graduate of Beloit College, is a Fulbright U.S. Student Programme member who spent 10 months studying and participating in Free Market Foundation projects. This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author. The views expressed in the article are the author’s and are not necessarily shared by the Foundation.

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