Just laws serve the interests of both the big and the small

25th August 2021

Small business, informal trading and housing present challenges and opportunities that traditional planning struggles to deal with.

A retired couple I know recently sold their family home in a neat middle-class suburb. They had raised their children there, enjoyed their grandchildren, treasured the garden.

But their neighbour sold to someone who crowded the property with tenants. He divided up the house and erected several rooms in the back garden without planning permission. Appeals to the local authority to enforce the by-laws evinced no response.

Overcrowding brings social problems and property values plunge – disastrous for pensioners. So reluctantly they sold their house and downscaled drastically. We all felt helpless and resentful as this unfolded.

Sometime later another friend excitedly invited me to an address several doors up this very street. He’s enterprising and hard-working but has never been able to progress beyond being a caretaker in a complex of townhouses, himself living in single rooms where he could find them. Without his family.

When I got there I discovered that he owned the house! He had just moved in with his wife and children and mother. What joy and excitement at this long-held dream come true!

He proudly showed me where he would plant fruit trees, then how he had turned the lounge into another bedroom, the garage into a dwelling, and where he was building three cottages in the back garden. This worthy man is a neighbour’s nightmare.

But how could he afford this?? It turns out that he had spoken to someone who likes helping people because “the banks make it difficult”. He paid a large “salary” into my friend’s bank account for three months so that he could prove to the bank that he could afford the bond. And he organised lawyers, the bond and transfer. Deal done. Is he a crook or a modern Robin Hood?

Now of course my friend is in a race to build enough rentable rooms to pay the bond and monthly costs and repay all the advances. He may fail and lose everything. But here is a family at last able to live together in their own home, and offer safe low-cost rental accommodation to people desperate for it. Is this not the sign of a just society in which everyone has the right to a home? It works.

But if I were a neighbour I would deeply resent my property value falling through the floor, infrastructure collapsing and all the social ills that go with overcrowding. It’s illegal and unjust.

So whose justice is right?

The worst outcome is what we have – by-laws being ignored. That way leads to the chaos that pervades too many cities across Africa. Breaking laws is wrong. Either they must be enforced or changed. Business requires predictability and most of us crave the security that enforcement brings.

Changed into what? Here there is room for difficult but creative negotiations and compromises based on realising that we have different perspectives on what is just.

I’m not a housing expert, but maybe we need new cluster housing sold to stokvels that combine income. Or planning processes that allow densification without busting the social and physical infrastructure, offered by an accessible office that can simplify and guide new homeowners through the steps required.

This is true for small businesses too. Those who govern have power and often are wealthy, and obviously hear the concerns of their peers. Their laws and by-laws protect businesses from unfair competition and society from disorder, by telling us where we can make and sell things. Good. But people need to live, so the laws are ignored. By talking and listening, can we create laws and policies that guide hungry people to feed and house themselves legally and safely?

Jonathan Cook is a counselling psychologist and chairman of the African Management Institute. He is also the host of AMI’s weekly Rise reflection series focused on supporting you in your business and your personal wellness.

This article was originally published on BusinessLive on 05 July 2021 and is republished with permission.

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