Herman Mashaba. Picture: ALON SKUY​​
Herman Mashaba. Picture: ALON SKUY​​

You don’t have to wait to see the complexities of land expropriation without compensation playing out. It’s happening right under our noses and proving that we need to be very careful in how we use this tool — and that our political parties on both extremes of the debate aren’t paying enough attention to the details.

As the DA voted against the historic motion for land expropriation without compensation in the National Assembly a few weeks ago, its mayor in the City of Joburg, Herman Mashaba, announced plans to go ahead with the expropriation of potentially 200 or more hijacked buildings in the inner city.

It’s a fascinating case study, particularly because while the focus has been on agricultural land, it’s the right to land in our city centres that is arguably the most urgent issue.

To this end, Mashaba is on the right track — and he’s within the legal bounds to expropriate even before the motion becomes law. The motion, which was led by the EFF and supported by the ANC, was passed. But it has been described by legal and land experts as potentially unnecessary — and shifting blame to the Constitution for a longstanding political failing.

The voting split has seen former political allies the EFF and DA at loggerheads over the issue, with the former now cosying up to the ANC.

Yet Mashaba’s plan shows how much can be done within the bounds of the law — but how dangerous it can be for the poor if it is not thought through properly.

The plan is, on the face of it, pro-poor. There is an urgent need for low-cost housing in the Joburg city centre, as in other cities across the country, thanks to the legacy of apartheid spatial planning.

The city, under Mashaba, has identified 265 hijacked buildings, which it intends to return to the owners. The city wants to work with these owners to turn the buildings into affordable rental accommodation. If they refuse, the city would approach the courts to expropriate the buildings, Mashaba said.

I spoke to the mayor’s legal adviser, Tony Taverna-Turisan, on POWER 987’s drive radio show two weeks ago, to understand how one would ensure these neglected blocks were safe to live in.

There is no profit to be made out of poor people who can’t afford high rentals. That’s what the state is for.

He explained that the city faced financial constraints, and would therefore partner with private developers to fund fixing up the buildings and be allowed to rent them out.

This element is not a new idea. The previous ANC-led administration tried a version of this scheme years ago, first as the Bad Buildings Strategy, which was later replaced by the Inner City Property Scheme. Both relied heavily on the involvement of private developers. We’ve seen this movie before in the DA-led City of Cape Town as well.

The Socio-Economic Research Institute (SERI), however, has made clear its opposition to the plan because of a recurring problem: no private developer can pay for the renovations AND keep the rent low enough while turning a profit.

Taverna-Turisan said in the interview that the city would enforce developers capping the rental at about R500 a month.

This is about the right number. The 2013 Mind the Gap report noted that those living in the inner city can afford rents of less than R900 a month, and mostly in the range R300-R600 a month.  Read the full  report here: Minding the Gap

But this means the developers would have to carry the costs of the renovations and find a way to recoup their money.

“The only way the city could conceivably make it work is if these rent restrictions only lasted for five years or so, and after that [the private developer] can charge whatever they want,” SERI’s executive director, practising advocate Stuart Wilson, told me in an interview for this column.

“This does nothing for the poor. It just negotiates the terms of their departure.”

It’s classic inner-city gentrification that forces out the poor. Even if that sort of plan succeeds, the city is shooting itself in the foot. If the residents are eventually evicted due to high rentals, they have to be provided with alternative accommodation and the cycle starts again. Gone are the days when the Red Ants could leave people and possessions on the streets. The Constitutional Court has repeatedly made it clear that you cannot evict people without providing them with a place to stay.

Mashaba’s expropriation idea in Joburg demonstrates how it’s a blunt but very useful tool. Expropriating a block of flats is a shortcut for the city.

The more traditional way for a city to gain control of a building it does not own is to sell it in execution of debt owed on it. When a building is sectional title with individuals flat owners, the city would have to go after each owner and institute as many court cases as there are owners. It’s a nightmare.

Expropriation makes it one clean sweep with just a notice required for each owner. It’s a great option — if the city used it to take control of a neglected building, restore it and rent it out at an affordable rate. But it needs to take the hit and subsidise the renovations itself to keep those rentals low. The private sector can’t solve the problem when it generally hasn’t been able to do so in previous iterations.

“The private sector isn’t some magician’s hat out of which you can pull any solution you want,” says Wilson. “Private developers want profit, and there is no profit to be made out of poor people who can’t afford high rentals. That’s what the state is for.”

And when the state is considering such drastic measures, it is up to opposition parties to ensure it is done right.

Analyst Steven Friedman has previously written that the EFF, “having voted the DA into office, shows little interest in influencing how it governs”.

“A key current issue facing the Johannesburg council is its treatment of inner-city flat dwellers who are, in the main, black and poor and so part of the constituency for which the EFF says it speaks,” he wrote. “And yet it seems happy to allow the DA to decide how they should be treated.”

In an interview on POWER 987 on Thursday night, EFF leader Julius Malema noted that Mashaba was “doing a good job”. This as his party goes after another DA mayor in Nelson Mandela Bay, Athol Trollip, to teach the party a lesson for voting against the expropriation motion in Parliament, they say.

Why Trollip? The colour of his skin as a white man, said Malema, and the fact that he is in the DA’s national leadership.

Perhaps a better test for Malema and the EFF in how they wield their considerable power in holding the DA to account in the various metros where they co-govern is to focus on their core mandate: the poor.

Verashni Pillay is head of digital at POWER 987.