Rental racism: 'No non-whites in my house'

2014-01-12 14:00

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The man on the other end of the line made no attempt at niceties. In a heavy Afrikaans accent, he asked: “What nationality are you?”

Sensing what was coming, I responded: “I’m South African.”

And then he dropped the bombshell: “I’m sorry sir, this place is not available to non-whites.”

“Excuse me?” I asked. I was making sure I had heard correctly.

He repeated with no hint of coyness or irony: “I’m sorry, I said this place is not available to non-whites.”

It was the first time in my life I’d experienced such raw racism. Friends and colleagues advised me to report it to the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) or the Equality Court.

I headed to the SAHRC offices in Joburg but while sitting in the queue waiting for help, it dawned on me that I was wasting valuable time.

Did I really want the commission to tell someone that racism, subtle or blatant, is wrong and unacceptable – something he knows already?

Shouldn’t all South Africans have a personal and collective conviction that discrimination on the basis of skin colour is abhorrent?

After careful consideration I decided not to lay a complaint. I don’t believe the racist would be converted overnight just because of a sanction from the commission or the Equality Court.

This happened barely two weeks after we had buried our patriarch, former President Nelson Mandela.

Following the announcement of Mandela’s death, thousands of South Africans – black and white – flocked to his Houghton home to pay their last respects to the man who gave himself selflessly to free us from the hideous and atrocious racist apartheid system.

It goes without saying that Mandela, an international icon, was loved by the majority of South Africans.

But could it be that some of my white fellow countrymen loved Madiba, but reject everything he stood for – reconciliation and an equitable, just, fair, nonracist and nonsexist South Africa?

After City Press reporter Sipho Masondo was told he couldn’t rent a house in Pretoria because he was ’non-white’, the team decided to put South Africa’s rental agents and landlords in major centres to the test.

Reporters working in teams of two?–?black and white?–?called at least 10 people in each city or province to ask about properties advertised on rental websites.

Twenty years after democracy, the results from some areas were shocking.

Black reporters, who phoned first, were told places weren’t available.

Calling back soon afterwards, white reporters were warmly invited to come and view the properties.

Here’s what we found:

DURBAN

In Durban, money – and not skin colour – seems to be the language that would-be landlords speak best.

A telephonic survey of five agent-let and five owner-let properties across Durban provided a pleasant surprise when all who responded gave photographer Khaya Ngwenya and reporter Paddy Harper similar answers.

In fact, there were only two prospective landlords who said no.

A Durban North agent and an owner in the same suburb told both Ngwenya and Harper that the two cottage-style properties were already taken and that they had no other properties available.

But in Amanzimtoti, Waterfall, New Germany, Morningside and Umhlanga, both private landlords and agents were quite happy to do business with either half of the City Press team.

PRETORIA

Xolani Mbanjwa and Charl du Plessis made 16 calls to enquire about properties to rent in different suburbs in Pretoria.

In one case, estate agent Hannetjie Meiring told City Press’ black reporter that the property was not available, but she later told the white journalist that it was still on the market.

When she was phoned again for comment, Meiring said that the situation had changed between phone calls. She said that when Mbanjwa called initially, a deposit for the house had been lodged, but that it had since been withdrawn.

“What happened was that people gave the deposit without seeing the property, but when they came to see the property, they didn’t want to take it any more,” she said.

Meiring confirmed that this had all happened in a 24-hour period. She said that, as an estate agent, she was open to all people.

CAPE TOWN

The Mother City has a bad reputation for racism. A recent exposé by a Cape Argus journalist revealed that trying to rent “if black” was an uphill battle.

A southern-suburbs rental agent who asked to remain anonymous told City Press that none of the landlords on her books was willing to rent to black or coloured tenants, and all stated this openly.

The situation was similar at other agencies, she said.

But Natasha Joseph and Athandiwe Saba were pleasantly surprised in their search for properties in the City Bowl, Constantia, northern suburbs like Bellville and the Atlantic seaboard.

Several people told Saba properties were no longer available – and said precisely the same thing to Joseph when she followed up. Only one woman, looking to rent out a property in Gardens, offered a different story to the two.

BLOEMFONTEIN

In the City of Roses, City Press’ Athandiwe Saba and Natasha Joseph found no openly racist landlords or agents.

Even those people who had advertised exclusively in Afrikaans were happy to speak English to Saba and offer her the opportunity to view their properties.

Those who told Saba their properties were not on the market any longer told Joseph the same thing.

EAST LONDON

Charl du Plessis and Lubabalo Ngcukana were faced with nothing but hospitality when calling about properties short-listed from a range of suburbs across the coastal city.

All 10 landlords and rental agents invited Ngcukana to come and check out the places he was calling about.

JOBURG

As a black person in Joburg, finding an apartment to rent is not that difficult – until you start trying your luck in areas mostly occupied by white people, like Vanderbijlpark.

City Press reporter Zinhle Mapumulo had first-hand experience of this when she phoned seven homeowners who had put their homes up for rental on Private Property and Gumtree this week.

Five of them had no problem with renting out their places to her, but one, who had placed an advert in Afrikaans, told her the apartment was no longer available.

A few minutes later, her colleague, Yvonne Grimbeek, contacted the same woman. Speaking Afrikaans, Grimbeek was told that the apartment was still available.

The landlady said she was more than welcome to come and view the place at 4pm that day.

But it wasn’t all bad. In some predominantly white suburbs elsewhere in Joburg, landlords were equally friendly to both Mapumulo and Grimbeek during their inquiries.

LIMPOPO

Modimolle and neighbouring Bela-Bela in Limpopo are a hotbed of racially selective rentals. City Press reporters had no trouble finding white landowners and estate agents who were not willing to rent to a black South African.

Admittedly, we targeted adverts in the “white” parts of town, most of which are in Afrikaans.

If one wants to rent in town, the most comprehensive listings are in a small local newspaper called Die Pos.

More than half the properties that had already been taken when inquiries were made by Poloko Tau were mysteriously suddenly available when Charl Blignaut called.

“Sorry my friend, it’s taken,” said a male landlord when Tau called about the availability of his three-bedroom house 10km outside Modimolle.

“Yes, it’s still available,” the landlord heartily told Blignaut in Afrikaans.

In Modimolle, a leading estate agent advertised three homes, all of which had been taken when Tau called her.

Tau pleaded with the agent for anything at all, saying he had to move to the town as he had found a job there. She sympathised but said she had no stock. “Ooh, nothing, nothing, nothing,” she said.

When Blignaut called, it was a different story. She admitted she had little on her books but did have a four-bedroom house near the high school.

After a chat in which she inquired about his work and his family, she said that she would happily show him the property at any time.

A flat on offer in Rustenburg North presented new surprises. When Tau phoned the elderly owner, he was told it was taken.

But when Blignaut called a few hours later, he was told the flat was available.

He was first asked how many people were going to be renting. He replied “two” and was then asked if it was him and his wife.

Only when he had said “yes” was he told to come and take a look.

When contacted about a “plot with spacious farmhouse to rent near Modimolle” advertised on Gumtree, another estate agent quickly and politely told Tau: “Sorry, it’s taken.”

Blignaut called the next morning. “Yes, it’s still available,” she said in Afrikaans.

She even said R1?000 would be taken off the R6?000 rent if Blignaut did not want to use the chicken coops and sheep camps for farming.

When City Press called her back and told her of the survey, she was happy to discuss the situation in Modimolle as long as her name was not used.

“I’m terribly sorry about the way things are, but it’s the owners. I’d say about 70% of them give us instructions not to rent to black people.”

She said that included coloured, Chinese and Indian people.

“And the truth is that the high earners are black, not white. We have a lot of municipal and state institutions here?– health, education, agriculture, all of that. And the black tenants pay more promptly?...?but this is a very conservative community and especially the older people won’t have their complexes mixed.”

She said she had properties she “could have filled yesterday that are standing open because the owners want only white tenants”.

Another Modimolle estate agent agreed. “Some of the owners would rather have their house stand open for months than rent it to a non-white family. If the owner insists, what can we do as agents? They will take the property away from you and give it to someone else.”

She said white owners feared that “non-white” tenants would have large numbers of family members living on properties. She gave the example of a house rented to a Chinese couple that now housed 28 people.

Loud music, different cultural traditions and alcohol abuse are played out stereotypically as the owners’ fears of “non-white” tenants.

“You do get some real problems with non-white tenants. I’ve seen stones, chicken bones and tins flushed down toilets. Of course, then you get the really decent ones.”

She said if an owner was happy with a “non-white” tenant, she immediately delivered one, stressing that “decent” blacks were some of the best tenants one could find.

She confirmed that it was an unwritten rule of many complexes that they would only have white tenants.

“I was renting a flat and the little old lady next door said to me: ‘Remember, no blacks. Because it’s in the rules.’”

She admitted she had no option but to tell black callers that properties were already taken.

“Sometimes they’ll call back and say: ‘But you said it was taken and you’re still advertising it.’ Then I say they just haven’t taken the advert off the internet yet.”

Turning his attention to nearby Bela-Bela, Tau phoned just the first few adverts on the list in Die Pos and 60% were not available to him, but were to Blignaut.

“No, it is already taken. Thank you, bye,” said the wife of the owner of a home in a retirement complex.

Her husband answered when Blignaut called.

The unit was very much available and he proceeded to sell its many security and maintenance features.

When asked why it was available only to whites, he said “those are the rules of the complex”.

But when City Press contacted the chairperson of the managing committee, Johnny Meyer, he said there was no such policy?and that?it was open to all races.

“Sorry man, it was already taken at seven this morning,” said the owner of a town house to Tau.

“Come by,” he told Blignaut.

Later, he admitted that only white people lived in the units but that the block of flats next door had a black tenant.

Another town house owner said she did not mind black tenants but others did.

“Unfortunately, that’s how it is. I said ‘no’ to your colleague out of consideration for others living there?–?it’s mainly old people.”

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