Alex was proclaimed early in the previous century as a “normal” township. In those days property developers decided such things as land use, neighbourhood covenants, and restrictions on which races could occupy. In this case, the developer offered the land to “natives and coloureds”, who acquired the land in full and unambiguous freehold title.
Leaping a few decades into Verwoerdian apartheid, Alex became known as one of many “black spots” in which blacks owned land in white group areas. Along with most such black spots, all privately owned land in Alex was expropriated and landowners became city council tenants.
By then most land owners had built middle-class brick houses which exist to this day and are occupied by aged victims, or their descendants.
Most land owners had tenants living in shacks in their yards – an average of four per plot.
There were about 3,000 freehold (expropriated) properties with 12,000 tenants.
Leaping a few more decades to the recent-present, in law all former owners (and their descendants) and all former tenants are in the same legal position as tenants of the Johannesburg City Council.
Despite this technical legal position, the two groups were still spoken of as “owners” and “tenants”.
Owners formed two representative groups to try to acquire restitution. There was some litigation, the principle effect of which was to stop the city council developing disputed property.
Their main activity was to apply for restitution to the Land Claims Commission. The outcome was an offer of R50,000 per claimant / property, supposedly in full settlement.
Those claimants who signed the contract insist that they were briefed by government representatives to the effect that the R50,000 was compensation for lost rent revenue and that their land claim was still to be resolved.
The obvious question is why the government did not simply restore land seized by the apartheid regime. This sort of claim should have been the easiest to resolve; there was a clear victim who held undisputed title and no costly willing-buyer-willing-seller redistribution from whites was required. The answer was simply that tenants outnumbered owners four-to-one, which means they were a more important political constituency.
Owners were intent on persisting with their restitution claim, politicians were intent on securing the votes of tenants, and tenants did not want to find themselves paying rent to or being evicted by landlords. Adding to the confusion, the Johannesburg City Council at one point began “selling” plots to tenants, something the Law Review Project put a stop to as soon as they became aware of it. Although no further sales were made, the legal and political position of tenants who paid instalments added additional complications.