South Africa

The silent land grabbers: Are companies stealing public spaces?

There’s a silent land grab going on around our cities – and it has nothing to do with politics, but everything to do with businesses trying to gain an illegal commercial edge.

Companies are unilaterally annexing city street pavements to turn into client parking – which is against the law.

Not only that, in some cases, pedestrians are forced to walk into busy streets because pavements have been turned into parking lots or into illegal extra seating for restaurants.

In one case, a motor dealer threatened that any motorist parking in spots they had illegally reserved for their clients would be in danger of getting their vehicle clamped.

This is happening wholesale across Joburg and Ekurhuleni, where municipal bylaws are being violated daily by businesses with impunity.

And while it’s not exactly Steinheist, small acts of defying the law make perpetrators as guilty of propagating a national culture of lawlessness as a gang of looters.

In the East Rand, the Bentel Property Group have annexed two thirds of the block. Just off North Rand Road in Boksburg, the company has installed adjustable parking barriers on municipal property and, flanking that, signage that reserves parking for tenants, like First National Bank, on the street.

This is property that the company does not own, it belongs to the city, said ward councillor Simon Lapping.

“It is illegal, unless they applied for consent but to take over the pavement for private commercial use, I don’t see how the municipality would grant such consent.”

He added that as the councillor in the area, he would have to have received an application from the town planning department for such an arrangement.

“I have never received such an application,” he said.

FNB said it had eight parking bays reserved in the basement and referred Saturday Citizen to the landlord, Bentel Property Group.

Silent land grab johannesburg
FNB has signage reserving public pavement for clients. Photo: Hein Kaiser

The bank could not be drawn on whether or not it had anything to do with the annexation of public property for parking for its clients.

Instead, it refused to comment beyond the referral to its landlord.

Rene Blankers, head of leasing for the Bentel Group and its spokesperson, refused to answer questions.

“We have no comment. If the municipality believes it is illegal, let them come and remove it.”

Saturday Citizen later e-mailed her with an opportunity to add to her earlier response on the phone.

Blankers replied that she only “permitted Saturday Citizen to quote her as saying ‘no comment’.”

Lapping, who plans to engage Ekurhuleni metro police to enforce the bylaws, said: “This is not the kind of attitude conducive to finding productive solutions to the benefit of civil society.

“There are many companies that have extremely little regard for the law and the communities they operate in. Companies that land grab are as guilty as anyone else of breaking the law.”

Blankers’ response was in stark contrast to Morgan Nissan Northcliff.

Silent land grab johannesburg
Morgan Nissan dealership owner removed the sign. Photo: Hein Kaiser

The dealership had also annexed the pavement alongside its property and posted signage reserving the pavement for its customers and staff, warning that non-customers’ wheels will be clamped should they park there.

When Saturday Citizen approached newly appointed Morgan Nissan dealer principal Sunesh Booba, he immediately acted.

Within 15 minutes of approaching the dealership, Booba had called the journalist and confirmed that its actions were not compliant with bylaws, and that signage would be immediately removed.

Annexing pavements might sound trivial compared to other crimes, but Lapping said it could be the beginning of a slippery slope for companies to take bigger chances.

It’s also a danger to public safety and contributes to the erosion of law and order.

“It sends a message that individuals or companies can choose which laws they want to follow, which can destabilise community harmony,” he said.

Johannesburg Democratic Alliance councillor Leigh Knott agreed and said that there are lots of companies that are taking pavements for themselves.

“Yet the authorities stand by and do nothing about it,” Knott said.

Lapping plans to act on Blankers’ taunt.

“Nobody is above the law, not even the Bentel Group, who should know better considering they are large property owners in the Boksburg area,” he said.

“The problem stems from lack of enforcement by the authorities so everyone will try their luck.”

It is the duty of residential and business property owners to maintain the pavements adjacent to their holdings, but many do not. Lapping plans to name and shame land-grabbing companies and those who allow urban rot to set in on their doorsteps.

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