Throwing snakes at old ladies: Renting a house in Johannesburg

At the moment, I am technically homeless. Like most things in my life, I left the househunting until the last minute, and now I am relying on the kindness and patience of my friends while I search for a rental abode to call my own. It will be easy. Go look at some places, meet the people, organise rent and bill paying, move in, and help to repay the owner’s mortgage. We’ve all done it, most of us still do it, it’s the way of the world.

But imagine if it weren’t that simple. Imagine if the rent you were paying to that guy each month was helping to fund a crime syndicate, and that guy isn’t connected to the owner at all, he just has a cache of guns at his disposal, a flagrant disrespect for the law, and there’s too much other bad shit going on in the city for the police to bother with your, or the owner’s, complaints once you both figure out that you’re getting duped. Your neighbours are in the same boat, your workmates (or more accurately, the guys in the line with you at Centrelink) are in the same boat, and there’s dick all you can do about it.

That’s what it’s like in Johannesburg, South Africa.

It’s fucking crazy. These gangs of dudes figured out one day that with enough guns, telling people to give you money gets good results. They walk into the building armed to the teeth, inform the tenants that they will now be giving rent to them, point out that it wouldn’t be a good idea to not give it to them, then throw snakes at old ladies for good measure (that has actually happened). Sometimes they get sneaky with it, and claim to be an agent of the owner so as to arouse no suspicion, and get on their merry, highly illegal and selfish ways.

The worst thing about this shit storm is that not only is there too much crime in Johannesburg to pay too much attention to it, but property owners and tenants alike are too intimidated to really push for action. These false landlords collect the rent, then leave the buildings to rot- no upkeep on plumbing, stairwells etc, so the residents have to put up with slum like conditions until one of the privately owned security companies comes in to get the baddies out with even more guns. People get wounded, people die, and the whole community suffers, badly.

Living in a country with such rampant violence must be terrifying. My middle class brain can barely comprehend it. Since the early 90’s, Johannesburg city centre has been succumbing to heavy urban decay, and there is apparently a sense of lawlessness that makes it very difficult to make positive changes. A massive unemployment rate means that every one is just stealing shit from each other to survive. A fucking free for all. Imagine trying to raise children in that environment. No thank you.

It’s easy to complain about steep rental prices in Australia (that is definitely my biggest gripe with Melbourne living in comparison to Perth), and lots of people watch the Current Affair or Today Tonight pieces on “Australia’s Worst Landlord”, which will detail the withholding of bond for no reason, not replacing window locks, not fixing a leaking ceiling etc. But we’re more than able to make complaints to various bodies that will force the owner to do something about the degradation of a house. Lots of people here don’t do it because they aren’t aware of the tenant’s rights, but man, we’ve got it pretty good. Australian’s rental problems have NOTHING on the the organised crime bullshit bully-boy tactics that go on in Johannesburg. Whole blocks of apartments suffering the same fate, and no one to turn to for help.

So as I go about my search for shelter, I am dorkily thankful that I can trust that the flow of money from my bank account into my future landlord’s will be a safe, happy flow, devoid of guns to the head and snake-threats. Sure, I would much rather be building a house of my own to live in, but who wants to commit to property ownership? Any day now, the rest of the western world could fall into a state similar to parts of South Africa, and it could very well be dangerous to have invested money into a building. Better to stay on the safe side I think.