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Land grabs – Should we be worried?

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When marauding crowds attempted to settle illegally on tracts of unused but privately owned property from Sandton to Midrand in March, it brought home the reality that attempted land grabs are likely to continue. They may escalate to people settling illegally on private property or even claiming homes in residential areas.
by Tali Feinberg | May 03, 2018

In Olievenhoutbosch, near Midrand, people who invaded land identified themselves as “backyard dwellers”. They demarcated areas with tape and began weeding out tall grass with spades and machetes on the vacant, privately owned land along the R55 road. They said they were given permission to occupy the land by Peter Seolela, chairperson of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) in the area.

On March 24, large crowds gathered near the KFC on Marlboro Drive to fill out forms that they hoped would give them claim to the land.

Another group, calling itself “The Landless People’s Power”, occupied a piece of land in Midrand, north of Johannesburg, and began erecting structures there in the early hours of the morning.

The EFF’s provincial chairperson in Gauteng, Mandisa Mashego, proudly claimed that these actions were organised by the EFF. “We revere and honour it as our pillar of strength and bedrock of all our other policy statements that‚ if pursued vigorously or fearlessly‚ economic freedom in our lifetime will become real,” she said.

President Cyril Ramaphosa responded to the spate of land grabs by saying that no person can illegally occupy private land, as it was a clear violation of the country’s laws. He warned that those who are doing so will face the full might of the law.

However, this does not assuage public fears that land grabs, land claims and illegal occupations will not escalate. “Land expropriation is creating huge expectations among the general ‘disadvantaged’ population that cannot be met,” says Paul Wisenberg, a partner in Maurice Phillips Wisenberg Attorneys, Notaries and Conveyancers, who has extensive experience in property-related disputes. “That is dangerous, as we see the many land invasions that are now taking place. There is so much confusion surrounding this issue and it is having a definite negative effect on property values at the moment.

“The uncertainty is a cause for concern,” he continues.

However, he believes that “unused land and state land will be the first in line. I don’t believe that owners will be happy to let their land go without compensation, so expect many court cases. However the process pans out, I expect it to take a very long time. I don’t believe that primary residences are in the firing line.”

There is the possibility that someone may come to your door and claim that this is their home or property, or settle on your land. In this case, Wisenberg advises that all owners have strict property rights and if someone illegally settles on your land, you must ensure that they are removed by reporting this to the relevant local authority within 24 hours to ensure the invaders do not enjoy squatter rights, which would then involve the courts to evict them.

“If someone comes to your door as suggested, I would recommend you advise them to go through the legal channels and lodge a claim, and if they persist, then call the police.”

He adds that there is a remote risk of a land claim being submitted, but this will have to be supported by proof that the land was owned by the claimant’s family. “This is a long, laborious process and if successful, will be linked to market-related compensation. I say it is remote as the claim has not yet been submitted; it is unlikely to happen at this time.”

The movement towards affordable housing could also change the dynamic around property ownership, says Wisenberg.

“The phrase ‘affordable housing’ is used quite liberally, but as far as I am aware, it has not yet been defined. However, if low-cost housing is erected side by side to upmarket properties, I would suggest that this will impact on the values of such properties negatively.

“I believe that this movement is a greater risk than land claims,” says Wisenberg.

Meanwhile, in Harfield Village, Cape Town, the community’s website states that many Cape Town suburbs, including properties in Harfield Village, are the subject matter of land claims. “One cannot predict the future and guess whether or not your current property in Harfield Village will become subject to such a claim; or if standing in the shoes of a purchaser, whether the home you are so interested in buying, may shortly become the subject of such a claim.

“As such, parties who are concerned should obtain legal advice regarding the likelihood and impact of such a claim,” advises the site.

“Accordingly, it is vitally important that you, as a buyer, take the necessary precautions to ensure that sufficient guarantees and warranties are provided by the seller in terms of the purchase agreement.”

Leila Emdon, who lives in Harfield Village, says a family who lived in her home was forcibly removed during apartheid, and she feels distressed and conflicted that she now lives there. She is even considering putting up a plaque outside her home to honour the family who were forcibly evicted.

“My neighbour once saw a car stop outside her house and a family pointed and smiled from their car. When she asked them about it, they said they used to live there and are just remembering,” she says.

As someone who has taken it upon herself to research the topic, Emdon adds: “Many houses are on stolen land and with a dark history, and it’s something everyone should be aware of and sensitive to. The ANC has largely failed to successfully implement land reform in post-apartheid South Africa. The Constitution makes provision for a successful and ethical process – it doesn’t need to be changed.

“The ANC are getting behind expropriation without compensation because their failure to adequately address the land issue is coming to a head.”

Meanwhile, the City of Cape Town has also seen land claimants choosing to be compensated and allowing their land to be redeveloped. Last year, the Western Cape High Court approved a multimillion-rand development on land restitution site Tramway Road in Sea Point, sold by its claimants.

The Tramway Road Trust sold the property in 2014 after receiving it for free from the City of Cape Town in 2001. It’s a site where coloured families were forcibly removed during apartheid, but the elderly claimants sold the land after they were unable to develop the properties themselves.

In April last year, property developer Mike Flax told Eyewitness News: “What saved the original complainants was the rise and uptick in the land values in the area. Not only did they get out of debt, but they also left with about R2 million per family.”

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