A small simple office in the Central Methodist Church in Johannesburg carries the hopes of thousands of black people living in the city. It is from this office that an organisation called Actstop is waging the battle against the Group Areas Act.
Billy Naidoo and his family remember how excited they were when they moved into their new home in Mayfair, Johannesburg in 1978. They had been without a place to live for a very long time.
But their happiness was short-lived. As they unpacked their belongings, they heard about a group of white racists in the area who were furious that an Indian family had moved into a ‘whites only’ area.
The racists belonged to a group known as the National Front and they were prepared to do almost anything to stop black people from living in their neighbourhood. They began by making a list of all the blacks living in the area and giving it to the police.
It was not long before the Naidoos were prosecuted under the Group Areas Act for living “illegally” in a “white” area. They were forced to move out of their new home.
The Naidoo’s felt hurt and angry. They decided they would not quietly go back to an “Indian” area-they would rather camp outside their house to show the world the evils of the Group Areas Act. For four months, Billy, his wife and two children lived in a tent on the pavement outside the house they were evicted from.
The Naidoo’s were not alone in their struggle. Support groups from many areas – like Berea, Joubert Park, Doornfontein and Mayfair – were formed to help the family in their hour of need.
That same year, 1978, these support groups came together and formed one organisation to help other victims of the Group Areas Act. The organisation called itself the Action Committee against Evictions, or Actstop for short.
A BUSY TIME FOR ACTSTOP
Actstop’s aim in the beginning was to fight against evictions of people under the Group Areas Act, a law that was passed by the Nationalist government two years after they came to power in 1948.
Together with other apartheid laws like the Separate Amenities Act and the Population Registration Act – the Group Areas Act has the aim of keeping whites, blacks, Indians and “coloureds” apart … and keeping the white minority in control.
The government began by moving people from “white” areas. Families who had lived for generations in places like Sophiatown, District Six, Marabastad and Pageview were removed by force to other areas.
At the same time, the government tried to keep black people out of the cities and towns through the pass laws and the Bantustan system. So, very little was done in the already overcrowded townships about the housing shortage.
In fact, in Soweto, not a single house was built in the ten years between 1968 and 1978. Today, as many as 1.7 million people do not have homes in the Pretoria, Witwatersrand and Vereeniging areas.
The housing shortage forced people to look for accommodation in the “white” suburbs. As more and more people came to Johannesburg, more and more prosecutions followed.
The Naidoo family’s case made headlines in the newspapers – but many more families suffered the same fate.
Between 1978 and 1982, 647 people were charged with breaking the Group Areas Act. During this time, Actstop with the help of a few caring lawyers was very active in helping people to defend themselves in court.
THE FIRST VICTORY
Then, in 1982, relief for black people living in “white” areas came with the Govender case. Like the Naidoo family, Mrs Gladys Govender was charged for living “illegally” in Mayfair.
Actstop lawyers defended Mrs Govender in court, saying that she had been on a waiting list for 11 years for a house in an Indian area.
The judge, Justice Goldstone, ruled that the law says that people are guilty if they are found not staying in their “own group area”. But, said the judge, being guilty did not mean that the people could be evicted straightaway.
First, other accommodation in their “own group area” must be found for these people. If other accommodation could not be found, the people could not be evicted.
Cas Coovadia is Actstop’s Publicity Secretary. He told Learn and Teach why the Govender case was so important. “The judgement made it possible for black people to live in town and not be evicted if alternative accommodation could not be provided.
“The Govender case was a victory for Actstop. It was because Actstop had fought so long against the Group Areas Act and made people aware of the housing problems facing black people, that we won this case.”
“After this case,” continued Mohamed Dangor, a founder member of the organisation, “the government stopped prosecuting people and people continued to move into town. In 1983, between 8 000 and 12 000 blacks were living in ‘white’ areas. Today, about 100 000 black people live in Mayfair, Berea, Joubert Park, Hillbrow, Yeoville, and some Northern and Southern Suburbs of Jo’burg.”
THE GREEDY LANDLORDS
After the evictions stopped, the exploitation started.
Crooked owners of flats, knowing that their tenants were desperate for houses because of the shortage in the black areas, started trying to make fast money. They began charging black people two or three times the rent that white people who were living in the same flats were paying. At the same time, these flat owners began to let their buildings go to ruin.
“Some of the flats have broken windows, broken baths and basins, lifts that have been out of order for many months and dirty courtyards and passages,” explained Pressage Nkosi, an organiser for Actstop. “When whites lived in the same flats they were properly looked after.”
Residents have only sometimes been able to fight the landlords in court or at the Rent Control Board (the board that fixes rents for flats). Most of the time, they have had to challenge the landlord through their own flat and area committees. Actstop has helped to organise the residents into these committees in 70 buildings in Johannesburg.
BRINGING IN THE HEAVIES
Fighting the landlords is no joke. The owners have many little tricks to avoid their responsibilities. One of these is to give their buildings to agents or “middlemen” to manage.
For example, Malan and Cohen are “middlemen” who manage more than nine buildings in Hillbrow and Joubert Park. This company is well-known for its exploitation of tenants. When tenants protest about the high rents and bad conditions, the agents just send in the heavies.
Pressage remembers the time he was attacked by one of Malan’s strong-arm boys, a Mr Mitton. “I came home and found my flat locked and Mitton waiting on the stairs for me. Without warning, Mitton attacked me and threw me down the stairs. “Go back to Soweto!” he shouted.
“That night, as I was waiting for Cas Coovadia to pick me up in his car, I noticed two men with red bands around their heads standing across the street.
One of them had a rifle, the other had a baton. It was Mitton and a friend. They chased Cas and me through the streets of Johannesburg, but luckily we got away. The next day I laid a charge of assault against Mitton, but he had disappeared into thin air.”
Manhattan Court is managed by Malan and Cohen. The tenants in this block of flats are well organised and have won many victories.
For example, they managed to get the rents down to the correct amount half of what the landlord had been charging them. The agents fought back by cutting off the electricity and the hot water.
“We had to buy candles and boil water for washing in,” says Sam Kgaripana, a member of the flat committee. “Now, we have electricity but there is still no hot water.”
A CHILD DIES
Myburgh Rajuili has been a member of Actstop for three years. “I joined Actstop because I was unhappy with the high rent I was paying – R268 – for a bachelor flat where I was staying,” he says. “Through Actstop we challenged this rent and it came down to R119 which is the correct rent according to the Rent Control Board.”
When Myburgh moved to Export House in Bree Street in 1987, he became chairperson of the flat committee. “On my arrival the rent was R475. We invited Actstop and challenged this rent. Today we are paying R250.”
“But there are still problems. For example, the lift works only two or three days a week and the stairs are chipped on the edges. This is because the landlord won’t maintain the building because we refuse to pay the high rent.”
Myburgh told us how a little child was killed because the landlord refuses to look after his building. “In 1987 the lift window broke and the landlord did not fix it. Then one day a tenant’s five-year old climbed through the window and fell down. While he was lying there, the lift went down and crushed him underneath. Sadly, this little child died.”
ACTSTOP FIGHTS ON
Although Actstop started with the aim of fighting the Group Areas Act, they have also taken up the battle against all apartheid laws. Since 1985, they have been campaigning for the opening of parks, sports centres, hospitals and schools to all people.
“We as Actstop believe that all apartheid laws such as the Group Areas Act, the Population Registration Act and the Separate Amenities Act are unjust and must be scrapped. We support all moves, such as the Defiance Campaign, to get rid of these laws for once and for all,” says Pressage.
“These laws were made in a white parliament. Until parliament represents all the people of South Africa, black people will continue to suffer because of unjust apartheid laws. And until South Africa becomes a just society, we must carry on putting the problems and sufferings of its people at the government’s doorstep.”
Actstop has done much to help those people who are suffering in the cities because of the Group Areas Act. It has come a long way from the days when the Naidoo family was forced to camp out on the street. It is through the work of organisations like Actstop that the time will soon come when South Africa will belong to all those who live in it!
You can contact Actstop at this number: (011) 29-9165
In Durban, an organisation called the Durban Central Residents’ Association (DCRA) is also fighting against Group Areas evictions and against high rents and bad maintenance.The DCRA’s phone number is: (031) 304-6451/76
prosecute – if someone is prosecuted, they are charged with a crime and put on trial alternative accommodation - another place to live a bachelor flat – a one-roomed flat maintain a building – look after the building by painting it, checking the plumbing and so on