First published in Cape Argus on November 22, 2013
For two months, writer Lwandile Ncokazi responded to advertisements on Gumtree, requesting information about rentals in the Cape Town City Bowl. He did not get a single response.
However, when “Andy” sent e-mails to the same advertisements asking to view flats to rent, he got four replies the next day, including three invitations to come and view the flats.
Lwandile Ncokazi and Andy are the same person.
Ncokazi has a theory about why Andy got preferential treatment – because he’s perceived to be white.
Ncokazi is one of three people who told the Cape Argus that the colour of their skin is a barrier to finding accommodation in the city.
He said that when his two-month search on Gumtree did not get him anywhere, he feared having to find a place “at a lousy backpackers”.
Then one of his friends jokingly suggested he change his name to Andy and see what happened.
“It felt ridiculous, but I thought it was worth a try. In 2013 there is still a place in South Africa where you have to change your name to that of a white guy in order to view a place. This is Cape Town, not Orania.”
Cape Town magazine editor Janine Jellars agrees with Ncokazi. She and her Tswana boyfriend have a similar story.
Jellars’s boyfriend, who lives in Joburg, began looking for a holiday apartment along the Atlantic seaboard where they could stay in December.
“We were looking for a nice place with nice views, close to the beach.”
Her boyfriend e-mailed seven places and was told they were unavailable, but when Jellars e-mailed the same places, they were all available.
Jellars said she felt this should not go unchallenged: “We are so used to having people minimise how we feel about this kind of thing that we let it fly. It is sad that we have come to accept this kind of behaviour. When it happens you just brush it off and think ‘What can we do?’”
Carl Hlungwani also had to resort to a “white front” to help her secure a place. When her three-year lease in Blouberg came to an end, she decided to move to the southern suburbs to be close to work.
She tried to rent a place in Rondebosch, but was told it was not available. Hlungwani, a 46-year-old university manager, suspected racism might be involved. She handed the phone to her white colleague and asked her to call the same estate agent. Minutes later, Hlungwani’s colleague was told the flat was available.
Eventually the colleague looked up places on her behalf and made appointments. Hlungwani then applied for a flat in Pinelands, but it went to a white student, who had applied on the same day.
After a month of rejections, Hlungwani settled for six-month lease in a bachelor’s flat in a building she did not like.
She decided it would be better to buy property because that would mean she wouldn’t have to face racial discrimination from landlords.
But that was not easy, either.
Hlungwani viewed a home in Newlands and told the estate agent she wanted to buy it.
However, before she could put in an offer, the agent called and told her the owners did not want to sell to her because of the “history that they have had with black people”.
The owners told the estate agent the house had sentimental value for them and they did not want to sell it to someone who was not going to look after it.
“I was so miserable. It has been very stressful,” Hlungwani said.
“It is difficult to explain to someone who is not in your position. I love Cape Town, and it is not yet time for me to leave. But at the same time, I am fed up. I want to go home to Joburg and be happy.”
In the end, Ncokazi found a flat using the name Andy, but Hlungwani is still looking for a house to buy, and Jellars is looking for a holiday let.
Offended parties urged to report racist behaviour
Donna Stevens, an estate agent at Harcourts Prestige, said it was unethical and against the code of conduct for estate agents to prejudice clients because of their race.
She said sellers were normally interested in whether someone could afford their asking price and agents concentrated on the client’s credit worthiness.
People who experience the treatment described by Lwandile Ncokazi, Janine Jellars and Carl Hlungwani can report the estate agents to the Estate Agency Affairs Board.
Jimmy Baloyi, executive manager for enforcement at the board, said racist behaviour from estate agents deserved to be penalised, and he urged people to report these offences to him.
“People who are aggrieved by this kind of behaviour should contact us and lodge their complaints. The board cannot tolerate this kind of discrimination by members of the industry and we will do everything within our powers to ensure that this does not happen.”
Georgina Alexandra, a researcher on politics, government, assets and incomes at the South African Institute of Race Relations, said race was still a big issue in the country.
“Competition over scarce resources, such as jobs, can perpetuate feelings of hostility and resentment. On top of which, we as South Africans think of ourselves in terms of race first.” She added that South Africans tended to focus on differences rather than what they had in common.
However, she added that while there were still discrepancies between the races, the country had made progress.
Alexandra urged people to report racist incidents to the Human Rights Commission. She said that despite these incidents most South Africans were living peacefully alongside one another.
It’s up to the owner, say estate agents
Agents canvassed by the Cape Argus spoke on condition of anonymity.
One agent said: “When a person walks into my office looking to rent, I don’t see colour, I see respectability – or lack thereof.
“I have had a bad experience with black tenants – they didn’t pay and they trashed the place. So, yes, I am sceptical when some black people walk into my office.
“But there are plenty of white people who walk in who I definitely wouldn’t rent to either.
“It’s not about colour, it’s about class.
“All prospective tenants give us permission to run credit checks and if they pass scrutiny, I’m happy.”
Another agent said: “If their references check out, if their credit checks and proof of income are fine… then it’s not a problem. If they qualify they qualify.
“But I must add that the final decision is with the property owner. We typically take the owners a shortlist of those who qualify. Everybody looks good on paper, but it’s then up to the owners to decide themselves.
“And when they do decide, they don’t have to give us agents, or the applicants, any reasons. It’s their prerogative to choose.
“So it is possible that an owner may decide not to give a lease to a black applicant, but we, as agents, normally wouldn’t know what the owners’ reasons are. In fact, we don’t even want to know – we can hardly be asked to tell applicants they failed because of any reason, if they’ve passed our checks.
“Normally, applicants who aren’t chosen are just told ‘no’ – without any reasons – and we then try to find them something else.”