Webber Wentzel’s Pro Bono team aids rising numbers of tenants threatened with evictions

​Webber Wentzel’s Pro Bono team is being called upon to assist an increasing number of families who are being subjected to unlawful and lawful evictions as a result of Covid-19 lockdown laws.

In one case, a security guard, Prince Hlabangana, who was only working every other week during lockdown level 5, was evicted with his wife, three daughters and three-month-old grandchild from their flat in Berea without an eviction order. The family spent the night on the street, with nothing to eat.

By lunchtime the following day, the Pro Bono team had obtained an order restoring them to their home, which was complicated by the fact that the landlord had welded the door shut. Since 1 June, Hlabangana has been able to work full-time again and start paying arrears but he is now facing a lawful eviction application.

“The lawyers were so good, I am happy with what they have done for me,” Hlabangana says. “After we got an order for us to go back into the flat on Saturday morning, the owner refused to let us in, so we met with our lawyer and he went to the police station. We were able to get back into the flat late on Saturday, with the police. I have been in that flat since 2012. But they have now given us notice to vacate by the end of July. I will be meeting Webber Wentzel again this week.”

In another case, a woman who worked four days a week for a B&B (now closed under lockdown restrictions) and did domestic work for one day a week has lost four-fifths of her income and was unable to pay her rent. She and her family were evicted from their home by people they called “bouncers”. The Pro Bono team obtained an interdict to stop an eviction but she decided at the last minute that she feared reprisals, so instead an order was granted that the police would accompany her to move her belongings to other accommodation.

In a third case, a spaza shop owner and his wife have been served with notice to vacate their rented premises by end-July because their revenue has dropped sharply on the back of being unable to sell tobacco products, which they described as “the cream on the top” of their income.

Moray Hathorn of Webber Wentzel’s Pro Bono team says that although initially under the state of emergency declared under the Disaster Management Act there was a ban on evictions, this was lifted several weeks ago. That means the ordinary law applies, so that a landlord can terminate a lease and apply to court for an eviction order if a tenant is in arrears with rental.

“We need the courts to come up with a solution that allows tenants to pay off arrears and stay in the property for as long as they need to find another rental,” Hathorn says. “Of course, finding a new place to stay will also require them to pay a deposit, which they can probably ill-afford under the circumstances. This is a very complex situation and we hope the courts will find a way to apply a level of justice and equity to it.”

Webber Wentzel’s Pro Bono team includes two partners, one of whom is based in Cape Town and the other in Johannesburg, with three​ associates and one consultant. The team draws on expertise in the rest of the firm when required. Webber Wentzel has another team which also does a lot of pro bono work for the Helen Suzman Foundation.