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Property theft on the rise as syndicates find a flaw in the law

by Luqmaan Rawat
PIE Act has allowed syndicates to take over buildings with property owners facing long legal battles to get back what is theirs Photo Pexels

South Africa – Residential property theft is on the rise as hijacking syndicates have found a loophole in the system. Even with the Prevention of Illegal Eviction from and Unlawful Occupation of Land Act,1998 (PIE) it has become increasingly difficult to remove illegal occupants from buildings.

It is common to hear about buildings being hijacked in Johannesburg. According to Dominic Steyn, Corporate Law & Commercial Litigation Partner at Cowan-Harper-Madikizela, the onerous process of the PIE Act combined with the incapacity of the police has made it easier for syndicates to hijack buildings.

“The hijacking of a building of a residential unit is very well organised. Quite often the syndicate has informants within the South African police service, within the administrative arm of the judiciary. They know how to delay the process. If your apartment block is targeted by these syndicate members, they will move in and as quickly as possible install their own tenants and evict existing tenants. The process to get rid of them after take anything from 10 to 15 months. If an organised syndicate is involved, then it will take many years.”

The difficulty to get illegal tenants removed

The PIE Act was only supposed to include vacant land, but the drafting includes buildings. It is because of this oversight that makes it almost impossible to remove syndicates from buildings, explained Steyn. This is why owners have abandoned their properties after they have been hijacked. They don’t wish to pay rates and utilities for a building that provides them with no income.

“You have a very small window to get rid of these hijackers before the PIE Act comes into application. Before they’ve moved in tenants they are trespassing. The police service is supposed to remove them. What most people don’t realise is the police service has an internal directive telling members not to arrest someone immediately for trespassing.”

They can only arrest someone if trespassing occurs in their presence. This allows hijackers to move tenants in and trigger the PIE Act. For this reason, Steyn advises his clients to bypass the police, approach the court and get the sheriff to take a private security company to remove them.

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What happens when the PIE Act comes into application

If this is not done and the building is occupied, you have to use the PIE Act. This is a long and strenuous procedure. It can take anywhere up to fifteen months because the court has to take in multiple factors under the PIE Act.

“The court has been mandated under the PIE Act to take various considerations into account before agreeing to give the eviction order. They need to look at whether there are elderly, are there children, are there women-headed households. How long have these people been there. Even when the court decides, yes, we can evict someone, the court has to decide how long we should give these people to leave before you can physically evict them.”

If they have been there for six months or longer, the court won’t issue an eviction notice until the municipality has found alternative accommodation. Most of the time municipalities don’t have the infrastructure to house all of these people.

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Trying to change the PIE Act to not benefit syndicates

The loophole found in the PIE Act has caused property owners to use their own funds to get their buildings back. The legal field have voiced their concerns over the act, but it is up to the government to make changes to it, said Steyn.

“The legal fraternity can only comment and can only suggest. It is not responsible for the drafting and amendment of legislation. That’s a government function alone. At best we can only hope that our pleas will not fall on deaf ears. The government will take the initiative to try and update this legislation or perhaps even create different forms of legislation.”

Steyn and his firm have dealt with many of these cases in the past few months. The rise in this crime has actually led security companies to create a specific task force to deal with trespassers. As long as the PIE Act remains unchanged, syndicates have a loophole in the justice system.  Property owners will be facing a long and challenging battle to get back what is theirs.

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