Answer to a question from a reader

What are the rights of someone who has occupied a house after it was abandoned 20 years ago?

The short answer

Under the PIE Act, you cannot be evicted without a court order. You might be able to transfer the house to your name.

The whole question

Dear Athalie

After the owners of the house I am living in passed away, their son lived here until he married and went to live with his in-laws. At the time, I had nowhere to live, so I came to stay in the empty house. That was almost 20 years ago. I was contacted by a lawyer who explained everything to me and told me that the parents did not leave a will. 

I want to know what would happen if their son came back and told me to leave this house. I have nowhere to go and nobody has cared about this house for so many years. What rights do I have?

The long answer

Though it seems very unfair after you have lived in the house for so many years, only the title deeds give you legal ownership of the house. Perhaps you should first find out if there are title deeds for the house. You can find out by going to your nearest Deeds Office and asking them to search for title deeds for the house. You would need to give them the erf number (not the street number), the late owner’s full names and ID number if possible. It costs about R14.00 for them to do the search.

Legally, the late owner’s son can ask you to leave, but he would first need to get an eviction order from the court. No one in South Africa can be evicted without a court order in terms of the PIE Act (Prevention of Illegal Eviction from and Unlawful Occupation of Land Act 1998). 

The son would have to give you written notice of when the court would hold the eviction hearing and you should attend that hearing and give your side of the story. You would need to tell the court how long you have lived there and that you have no alternative place to go. The court has to consider what the effect of eviction would be on vulnerable people like old people, women and children, and it must be satisfied that it is right and just to grant an eviction order. The municipality must also attend the court hearing to indicate if they have alternate accommodation to offer you if the eviction order is granted. 

If the court does grant the order, it can only be carried out after the lockdown is lifted, unless the court finds that it is urgent and necessary to evict you immediately. The court is unlikely to find that it is urgent and necessary to evict you immediately. If the eviction order is granted and you don’t move out by the date given by the court, you can only be evicted by the Sheriff of the court, not by the late owner’s son.

When you have found out about the title deeds, you could approach the municipality and ask if they can help you to get the deeds transferred to your name. If they are not helpful, you can appeal to the MEC for Housing (Human Settlements) in your province. The MEC has the right to intervene in individual cases. You can phone the Housing Enquiries Hotline at 0800 146 873 to find out the telephone number for the Housing MEC in your province, and explain how long you have lived there after the house was abandoned by the owners.

If the MEC is not helpful, you could approach the following organisations for advice and assistance:

  • The Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa (SERI): 

WhatsApp, call or “please-call-me” to 073 226 4648 / 071 301 9676 / 083 720 6600


  • The Black Sash (for free paralegal advice)


Helpline: 072 66 33 73

  • The Women’s Legal Centre Trust (this is an organisation that specifically offers legal assistance to protect women’s human rights)

Helpdesk Queries:

Cape Town: 021 424 5660

Wishing you the best,

Answered on Oct. 26, 2021, 3:48 p.m.

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Please note. We are not lawyers or financial advisors. We do our best to make the answers accurate, but we cannot accept any legal liability if there are errors.