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This article first appeared in Groundup.

A group called Lungelo Lethu Human Rights Foundation is preparing a class action suit against the four major banks for what it says are the unlawful evictions of thousands of South Africans from their homes.

MeetingOnEvictionsMethodistChurch-CiaranRyan-20151202 (1)The group is being led by King Sibiya, who has waged this fight before. “What we are seeing now is no different from the human rights violations that we fought against during the apartheid years. The difference now is we are fighting the banks. And it is not just black people who are victims of the banks, white people are too. This case shows that justice is for the haves, not for the have-nots.”

The Constitution provides protection against arbitrary deprivation of property, but Sibiya says this is routinely flouted by the banks.

Most of the evictees represented by the Foundation are from poor communities in Gauteng. In many cases, they were evicted from properties they had occupied for decades, properties that were acquired during the apartheid years when blacks were denied freehold title. The best they could get was a 30 or 99 year lease from the local municipality, which was the primary landowner in places like Soweto. Banks started lending money to those with leasehold title, and this is where trouble seems to have started. Part of the claim the Foundation is making against the banks is that they were not entitled to loan money to those with leasehold title, since in the event of default the property would revert back to the local authority – effectively nullifying their collateral (being the house). This is part of the legal mess the court is going to have to sift through.

At a meeting of about 40 evictees in Johannesburg’s Central Methodist Church last month, some disturbing stories of abuse were told, such as that of 91-year old Gladys Mviko, who was evicted from her home in Vosloorus in 2012 for reasons she cannot fathom.

Mviko acquired her home in 1988 by way of a 99 year lease, and took out a small loan with the Perm (later acquired by Nedbank) to build an extra few rooms. On 24 November 1998 a judgment was allegedly handed down against her for default on her loan with the bank. This is an impossibility she says, as she was up to date with her payments to the bank. The property was sold at auction on 17 May 2012 for R100 – a ridiculous and suspiciously low price. Mviko says no summons was served on her, and on the basis of this alleged judgment she was evicted from her property – without a court order.

“Who gave the bank permission to sell my house?” she asks. Her loan to the bank was debited every month from her pay cheque, and was not in arrears, she maintains.

She now lives with her daughter, Florence Majola.

Sibiya points over to the Johannesburg High Court building, a half block away from where we are sitting. “Go and look at the court roll in the High Court any day of the week. 80% of the cases in the court are home repossessions and Road Accident Fund cases. And nearly a third of the 80% are default judgments.”

I went over and checked the court roll as he suggested and he was right. By far the majority of cases on this particular day involved the banks against presumably defaulting clients.

Sibiya fought for tenants’ rights in the apartheid years, and was one of the architects of the Mngomezulu versus City Council of Soweto case in 1986 that prevented tenants being evicted from their homes for non-payment of rent on the grounds that the City Council had not followed the law in setting rentals. The case was won on technical rather than human rights points, but it gave black residents greater security of tenure in their homes. While whites enjoyed freehold title over land under apartheid, blacks were regarded as transients who had to make do with leasehold rights.

The stories of eviction range from the tragic to the bizarre. Moses Mgijima (65) now lives in a shack in Thembisa, having been evicted from a municipal house he had acquired under leasehold title in 1982. He says he never borrowed a cent from Nedbank, but was evicted in 2012 when he was informed that his house had been sold by Nedbank to a company going by the name CC Trade 57 cc. He brandishes a letter from Nedbank saying a loan was taken out, but Mgijima says they have the wrong person. “I never had a loan with Nedbank. They show my property in the name of Maria Mbatha (who lives in Thembisa at a similar numbered but different address).”

Josephine Ncanywa also lived in a leasehold property in Dobsonville Ext 2. She borrowed R28,700 from the bank and admits to falling behind on her payments, but I was shown an insurance policy issued by the Perm that it would cover any shortfall payments – which apparently never happened. She says no summons was served on her (a common complaint) and she was evicted in 2005. She complained to the local municipality and was told to re-occupy the house, which she did. She claims she was then evicted a second time in 2008 by Red Stripe Trading 68 cc without a court order – which is illegal. She went to retrieve her court file but it was lost. She now lives in Orange Farm.

Communities are wising up to the home repossession scandal and now come out in force whenever the sheriff arrives with officials to evict tenants. The same tactic is being used in other parts of the world and lawmakers are getting the message. Greece has changed its law to prevent homeowners being evicted from their primary residence.

At the Central Methodist Church in Johannesburg I meet up with Solomon Nhlapo, whose late mother Mary acquired a 99 year lease house in 1965 and in the 1980s borrowed money from the Perm to build extensions. Mary passed away in 1994 but her son Solomon continued paying the bond until 1997 when he figured he had probably paid off the loan amount. He approached the bank and asked for the outstanding balance, only to be told he could not have that information as the account was in his mother’s name. “But my mother is dead and I am the one paying the bond,” he told the counter clerk. He told the bank he must assume the bond was now fully paid up and therefore stopped paying. He then discovered that the house had been sold to a company CUF Properties for R100 at auction. No summons was issued, no eviction order was presented, according to Nhlapo.

CUF has since sold the house to a new owner for R350,000. Nhlapo shows me a letter from the bank showing the bond was paid up and instructing Nedbank’s home loans department to hand over the title deed. Instead, the bank sold the property to CUF.

When I previously investigated a slew of similar complaints in Cosmo City, to the north of Johannesburg, the pattern was the same. No summonses, no eviction orders. All of the evictees were working people, some of whom had lost their jobs and run into cash flow difficulties, with little or no knowledge of the law. It is easy to bamboozle them with official-looking eviction notices. One Cosmo City resident, Victor Zuma, had his home repossessed by FNB over an arrears amount of R6,000. He is now seriously ill, the result he says of the stress of first losing his job, then his house. When contacted for comment, FNB says it tries to give defaulting customers time to catch up on arrears and only engages in the sale in execution process as a last resort – a stock answer whenever this type of question is raised. I asked the same question of the other banks and got pretty much the same answer.

“What they do is the sheriff arrives and if no-one is around he hands the summons to a neighbour,” says Maxwell Dube, publisher of the Cosmo City Chronicle, which has investigated corruption around home repossessions in the area. “Most of the people I have spoken to who have been affected by this did not see their summons before they were evicted.”

One investor had purchased 26 properties in Cosmo City in 18 months, all of them repossessed by Absa. When I tried to contact the investor, he would not take my calls. Later I discovered that he had started transferring the properties out of his name, presumably to cover his tracks.

Another sad case is that of Johannah Tshabalala who, with her late husband Mantae Petrus, acquired a house in Katlehong’s Khumalo section for R39,000, financed by Nedbank. This was fully paid in February 2007. In fact Tshabalala over-paid an extra R1,000. She tried to approach the estate agent who sold her the property for her title deed, but he had since disappeared. In 2010 she received a summons saying the owner of her fully-paid up house is CUF Properties and she had 30 days to vacate. A deed search shows CUF bought the house in 2009 for R69,000. The deeds register shows the house has been sold seven times since. She was evicted in April 2015, but remains a squatter in her own house. She was arrested for trespassing and granted R300 bail – all for a house that she insists is fully paid up.

Though Nedbank features prominently in the cases mentioned above, it is by no means the only bank accused of improper or unlawful behaviour.

When presented with the above information, Nedbank appeared keen to resolve the matter.

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