By Devan Moonsamy

20 000 People are Affected by the Winelands Tenant Crisis

The Cape Winelands is facing a severe eviction crisis. A few days ago the Supreme Court of Appeal threw out an application from a property developer to allow the removal of two families. This is only a temporary victory as the property developer still has other options. Not all tenants in these circumstances have been even so fortunate.

The May family of 13 people were evicted last week from a wine farm where they had been living for almost 40 years. Their possessions were dumped on the side of the road and they were forced out by armed security guards. About 20 000 people in what many people think are the tranquil surrounds of the Cape Winelands are also facing such prospects. It truly is a crisis.

There are a number of issues and misunderstandings about the tenant-landlord/lady relationship which have contributed to this problem and which require attention:

  1. Tenants often have to pay for background checks to reassure the landholder of their good standing. They also must provide references. But a landlord/lady is not required to do the same. This means that tenants have no such safeguard against a landholder who will not treat them fairly.
  2. There is no reporting and background checking system for landlords/ladies. There is not even an informal system, website, or online forum where tenants can report a problem landlord/lady. Potential tenants should have a way to check reviews by past tenants. If we do this for restaurants and other business, how much more important is it for people who must blindly enter into an agreement with a landlord/lady? It is advisable for communities, locally and nationally, to set up a forum with a rating system. This is not just to identify problem landholders, but to help prospective tenants find one they can trust.
  3. Few people understand what the (poorly termed) ‘squatter’s rights’ are. There is much confusion about how these rights actually work and when they apply. They do not privilege squatters in the way many people believe they do. Squatters do not have a legal right to indefinite occupancy, regardless of how long they have lived in a place. No person has the lawful right to occupy a property against the permission of the owner – unless a court order sanctions it. Essentially, it is up to the court to decide if and how an eviction may proceed.
  4. What squatters do have is the right not to be forcibly removed. This protects occupants’ constitutional right to dignity and to a home. A court will not sanction a landholder taking matters into their own hands and forcibly evicting an occupant, as happened to the May family in the Cape. Occupants and landholders must both be allowed to plead their case in court. Depending on the individual case, the court may grant the eviction with specific terms.
  5. An expired lease does not give the landholder rights to evict the tenant. They also may not lock tenants out, disrupt the supply of electricity or water, among other actions that would affect the tenants’ rights to shelter and amenities. Rent is excessively high in the Cape Town area, which further adds to the problem. Nevertheless, if the tenant has not been paying rent they may be ordered by the court to do so.

In the end, it is up to the court to decide on these matters. Occupants may stay in a home, and landholders may not remove them until the judicial process has run its course. To protect tenants, it is advisable that communities start a forum or website to report problem landholders and to help people find better ones.