State workers living rent-free for years

2013-07-11 00:00

MORE than 44 public servants are living rent-free in a hazardous, dilapidated government building in Pietermaritzburg, many with their families. Not only do they not pay rent, they don’t pay for water and electricity.

The authorities are fully aware of the transgression, but have failed to act against the illegal residents for 10 years.

The Department of Education, under whose jurisdiction the building falls, said there were plans to demolish it because it was “hazardous”.

However, the residents say the department is “politicising” the issue.

A tenant, who did not want to be named, said most people who live there were moved from Ulundi, Durban and Port Shepstone when most government headquarters relocated to Pietermaritzburg in 2004.

He said if the government wanted them to move out, it should send them back to work in their home towns.

The Education Department maintains that the staffers, 26 from their department, 18 from other departments and 10 others who did not work for government, occupied the building without authorisation.

In a report to the Education Portfolio Committee, the department maintained that there was an “acute” shortage of residential accommodation in 2004 and a regional manager allowed the staff to live on the premises. The department said tenants could not be evicted because they could not find alternative accommodation for them.

The Witness visited the building last week. There were no fire extinguishers, no emergency exits and no security gate.

A geyser had been broken for years and residents have no hot water.

Electricity cords crisscross each other in every corridor and a number of sockets on grimy walls were exposed, close to where children were playing.

Windows were shattered; in some areas the roof was caving in and the communal bathrooms were in a filthy state.

On the ground floor behind locked green doors the department stored old and broken furniture and human resources files.

The building was used to house third-year students from South African College of Open Learning before it shut down in 2002.

Most tenants live in one room.

“It’s really not safe to raise children here,” said a concerned mother.

The department, in its report, said it had been trying to hand out letters of eviction, which never reached the tenants due to “unforeseen circumstances”.

However, two tenants — employees of the department, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing their jobs — said the department was playing politics.

They told The Witness that the building was neglected and had been vandalised when they moved in, in 2005. The department had renovated it at that time, they said.

Tenants said they had sent submissions to department officials and also told them they were prepared to pay rent.

“But no one wants to take responsibility … it’s not a problem to pay for services but we don’t know who to pay to. There has been no directive,” one man said.

Despite the fact that the building was derelict, they were doing just fine. “It’s not bad,” he said.

Another resident, from Durban, said he could not afford to run two households and so was living rent-free.

“If the department demolishes this place they must take us back to our homes. It’s strange that they would have money to demolish it but no more to renovate it,” he said.

“Demolishing it won’t solve anything, it would be painting over cracks.”

Another tenant blamed those who are not department employees but have now occupied the rooms for not caring about the place and leaving it in an unkempt state.

He also said some people who used to work in the department left and gave their rooms to their friends.

They are still waiting to have a meeting with officials, he said .

The Education Department said that its legal services division would be pursuing evictions.

It said there were plans for funds to be made available to build an office block on the site.

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