The phenomenon of hijacking buildings is not only the Johannesburg Metros’ problem. This issue has spread across the country in areas wherever the criminal elements that carry out have identified opportunities. Most of the hijacked buildings are in cities, places believed to offer better opportunities for business and employment. It is therefore not surprising that many of the buildings either have electricity and water for which users are not paying or the services are non-existent. Addressing the issue of hijacked buildings is a complex challenge, but with the right strategies and collaborative efforts, progress can be made.
In the City of Johannesburg alone, the municipality is said to be losing at least 30% of water and electricity revenue according to the 2023 budget delivered on 13 June 2023 by the Member of the Mayoral Committee responsible for Finance. There exists a real cost to occupation of buildings in a way that authorities cannot account for. It is also not possible to collect revenue from these buildings, which means that municipalities are left to find ways to make up for the lost revenue.
Illegal occupants are not registered with any formal body (including the municipality) in order for them to be held accountable for any use of the property. This implies that any of the services used and enjoyed are paid for. The maxim “there is no such thing as a free lunch” directly applies to hijacked buildings and implies that compliant rate payers find themselves absorbing the cost of illegally occupied buildings, in a form of increased tariffs. Owners of properties in neighborhoods with illegally occupied buildings also have the unenviable reality of having additional negative impact to their own properties. On the other hand, as seen in budgets of some of the key metropolitan municipalities in Gauteng, municipalities do not have sufficient funds to finance basic services such as waste collection, provision of water and sanitation, and supply of electricity.
Most, if not all, of the illegally occupied buildings are not safe for occupation, and do not comply with minimum standards and laws – thus giving rise to real possibilities of tragic events such as the recent fire that engulfed the 80 Albert Street Building in Johannesburg. The cost is both financial and social, often leading to loss of human life. Despite non-payment of services in illegally occupied buildings, it is often municipalities that are left to manage disasters. The cost of any form of response must be funded.
There is also a social cost to hijacked and illegally occupied buildings, and this is seen in how these buildings become havens for different forms of criminality. Such structures make up for micro-societies in which “only the survival of the fittest is possible” with lack of safety and security measures. As a result, these buildings become a nuisance to both those who occupy them and their neighbors.
Time is therefore ripe to address the problem of hijacked buildings. Tackling hijacked buildings is like killing many birds with one stone. From reducing municipal revenue leakages, reducing crime havens, reducing slum lording, to eliminating disasters awaiting to explode, the benefits are numerous. While the solution is not one way, collaboration between local authorities and law enforcement agencies is a must. This entails the establishment of an inter-agency task force involving government departments, municipalities, law enforcement, and social services to collaborate on holistic solutions and ensure a coordinated response to the issue. There should be a prompt identification of all hijacked buildings to ensure that illegal occupants are removed, and the buildings are restored to lawful use. In addition, there’s a need to implement regular inspections of vacant or abandoned properties to identify potential hijacked buildings early. This proactive approach can prevent buildings from falling into disrepair and becoming havens for criminal activity. Moreover, engaging with communities living near hijacked buildings to encourage reporting of suspicious activities and to raise awareness of the negative impacts of such buildings on neighbourhoods. Also, developing and implementing a more robust property registration system that ensures all occupants are accounted for and accountable for utility usage and property taxes is needed. Municipalities should impose financial penalties on building owners who allow their properties to be hijacked. These penalties can serve as a deterrent and encourage property owners to take responsibility for their buildings.
Finally, launching public awareness campaigns to inform residents about the risks associated with hijacked buildings and to encourage reporting of such properties to the authorities also helps. Exploring avenues for financial support to municipalities struggling with the financial burden of emergency services and revenue losses due to hijacked buildings. This could include central government assistance or partnerships with private entities. Consider legal reforms to streamline the process of reclaiming hijacked buildings and to hold property owners accountable for maintaining their properties.
To conclude, it is important to view illegally occupied buildings not just as a problem for municipalities, but also as a challenge for different spheres and departments of governments. Their cost is not just financial, but social too, hence, they are a bigger problem than we might be willing to accept. Tackling the issue of hijacked buildings requires a multi-pronged approach that encompasses law enforcement, stakeholder engagement, regulatory reforms, and proactive measures to prevent the problem from escalating.