Vincent’s RDP story – a tale of informal property transactions

Vincent is a journalist who we’ve worked with recently to document some of our client case studies. In a recent conversation he mentioned his own experience of buying and selling a property informally which we asked him to write about.  Vincent’s story echoes that of many of our TSC clients and demonstrates how and why informal transactions of RDP properties took place in the past, and continue to take place to this day. Perhaps most importantly his story reflects the risks buyers carry when engaging in informal transactions as evidenced by the length of time it took him to resell the house and the fact that many potential buyers became uninterested as soon as they found out he didn’t have the title deed. Here is his story from his own perspective. 

I worked as a Senior Communications Officer on a contractual basis at the Western Cape Department of Transport and Public Works until November 2008. After my contract expired, I feared that I would not be able to continue to stay at Hibiscus in Brackenfell, where I rented a flat. Accordingly, I put up notices on spaza shops that said I wanted to buy an RDP house in Wallacedene. An RDP house owner saw the notice and phoned me to say he was selling his house for R24 000.00. 

When we met, he showed me an RDP house which was still under construction but about to be completed. I moved into the house on May 26, 2009 and paid him his money in the presence of his wife, an area committee and a local businessman, who had transported me to the Bank in Tygervalley to withdraw the money. 

I took down the names of the committee members and gave them money to buy a ‘cool drink’, witness and approve the sale. It was a standard practice to ask community leaders to witness such house sales.

Buying an RDP house without involving community leaders meant that no one would stand up for the buyer when the owner returns to claim his or her house. The community leaders asked him to confirm to them that he was indeed selling the house to me, and he did so. The committee counted the money and handed it to him. 

The house Vincent purchased in Wallacedene, Kraaifontein in 2009 (Google StreetView)

The house owner gave me his ID, his wife’s ID and a letter that confirmed that the house belonged to him and his wife. I believed that these documents served the same purpose as a title deed and a proof that I got the house from its owner. 

I was happy that I had my own place, and that I would no longer have to pay rent because I was unemployed. 

The inside of the house and windows still needed to be painted and varnished. Construction workers, painters and other workers often came into the house to put final touches here and there. 

I paid a professional electrician to wire the house, a welder to fit the house with burglar doors and burglar windows and a handyman to tile the floor. I also hired a local plumber to link my water pipes to underground municipal water pipes so I could get water inside the house. 

I always feared that the owner might come back, reclaim the house and refund me. However, I drew comfort from the fact that he was unemployed and as such would battle to raise R24 000 and repay me.

There were rumours that the government might evict me because I moved in before the house was officially handed over to the owner. Some residents said government officials would visit each new RDP house just before the official handover to check if its occupants were legitimate owners. These rumours worried me. 

I asked two lawyers how I could transfer the house to my name, and they both said I could only do so after five years or so. Even after such a period, I would have battled to register the house in my name because the owner was no longer staying in the Western Cape. 

I ran out of my savings and started to do freelance work for newspapers such as the Daily Sun, Daily Voice and The Cape Argus. I battled to get stories to sell to newspapers in Wallacedene. 

Consequently, I made a decision in 2011 to sell the house and relocate to Khayelitsha. I put up notices that said I was selling the house on local taverns and spaza shops, and people came to view it. 

Most of them wanted to buy the house but changed their minds as soon as I said I didn’t have a title deed. 

One potential buyer said: “Buying a house without getting a title deed is like throwing your money into the sea because the owner may return and reclaim the house. 

Since I had no title deed, I battled to find a buyer until 2014, when I told a local restaurant owner that I was selling the house. He knew me very well because I frequented his Tshisanyama to listen to music, eat and have fun. Also, he trusted me because I published some stories about his skirmishes with the police who initially deemed his restaurant illegal. 

The restaurant owner said he wanted to relocate his neighbour to my house because he needed more space as he was expanding his business place. Also, he wanted to move his neighbour elsewhere because she often complained about the noise from his restaurant. 

I sold the RDP house to him for R75 000, which was the standard price for RDP houses in Wallacedene then. On 26 May 2014 he initially deposited R50 000 into my bank account and subsequently paid the remainder in June. He personally organised a truck and youths to load my belongings and drove me to Khayelitsha, where I rented an RDP house. We never bothered to get people to act as witnesses because we knew and trusted each other. We continued to meet and chat after the sale until he unfortunately passed away due to Covid in 2020. 


Vincent does not know who is currently living in the house. However, based on records the TSC could access, it appears that the house was formally registered in the original beneficiary’s name in 2010, after Vincent had already purchased the property informally. It is not clear what, if any, validation process the City followed to validate ownership prior to transfer.

The current off-register owner faces the risk that the registered owner/s could try to claim the property. As evidenced in other cases, local community structures can be effective in discouraging this. But it is by no means that case that off-register owners face no risks. In addition, like Vincent they might find it difficult to sell the house without a title deed. They also cannot use their property to access finance and may not be able to engage with the City as recognised property owners.

Where the off-register owner wants to formalise ownership, he or she can attempt to contact the registered owner(s) and regularise the sale retrospectively. The TSC has helped several clients formalise past informal cash sales. There are two critical success factors: (1) the registered owner needs to be contactable and (2) the registered owner needs to agree to participate in the process.

In some cases where the registered owner is contactable and agrees to participate, he or she will request more money from the buyer. The latter scenario is the risk buyers face when approaching sellers to regularise a past sale. However, when this happens, the two parties reach an agreement and the sale proceeds, often with the off-register owner paying over additional funds.

Some researchers maintain that poor households do not care whether they have a title deed. No doubt in some cases they are right. But the clients who approach the TSC are acutely aware of the importance of a title deed and make a real effort to secure it. Many succeed only because of the assistance of the TSC and its conveyancing partner STBB, who does the conveyancing work on a pro bono basis.

Unwinding informal cash sales and unlocking security of tenure

This is the story of Ms Duma (not her real name) and her experience of buying a house through informal channels and having to defend her purchase when the seller came back to claim the property. Ms Duma is one of the TSC’s many successful informal cash sale regularisation case studies. Her story illustrates the very real risks buyers face when property transactions are not formally registered but also how informal mechanisms such as street committee letters, police affidavits and witnesses can work to validate a buyers claim to a property. Her story further reiterates the value that is unlocked when informal cash sales are regularised.  

Ward councillor Lucky Mbiza says many residents don’t have title deeds for their houses and properties in ward 96, Khayelitsha.

“The majority of the residents in my ward don’t have title deeds. It’s a nightmare,” he said.

Mbiza said: “Residents sell their properties and go back to their home provinces without transferring their title deeds to the new owners.”

The original owners of the properties sometimes return to reclaim them, he said.
Mbiza said: “In one instance a father died and his family sold their house so they could get money to bury him.”

“Family members who were kids then are now adults, and they are trying to evict the family that bought the house,” he said.

Vuyiseka Duma*, who owns a property in Makhaza, Khayelitsha, said she went through a similar experience. When she bought it, the property did not have a house on it – it was just a shack which was in a bad-shape. Still, she knew that this would be the place where she could build her home.

“I bought the property from the wife of the former owner who was living in Johannesburg at the time. He was aware of the sale, his wife was acting as the intermediary and three people who also lived in the area acted as witnesses”, she said.

Duma estimates that she has spent close to R30 000 to date on fixing up the property. “I fenced the yard, put a new roof on the shack, tiled and cemented the floor, put in new doors and a ceiling to make it liveable and comfortable”, she says.

But one day the former property owner arrived at her door with “a tall and bulky man” and tried to intimidate her to leave the property.

“They said the property still belonged to the former owner and that I must exchange properties with him and go live in his shack in Site C”, she says. But she refused, reminding the former owner about the police affidavit that was signed as well as the people who acted as witness to the sale.

“They left me feeling stressed out,” she said, “but now I feel comfortable and happy because I have the title deed.”

Duma told how the Tenure Support Center (TSC) helped to regularise the transaction with the former owner and get her the title deed for the property.

“I told TSC staff that I had bought a property in 2003, but I had no money to hire a lawyer to transfer the title deed to me,” she said.

The TSC is a non-profit project that helps low-income residents resolve their title deed challenges.

Duma said TSC staff told her that she would need to sign a new sale agreement with the former owner and obtain his co-operation in the process. Fortunately, he agreed.

Duma explained why getting the title deed mattered so much to her. “Now that I have the title deed, the former owner or his children can’t come back and lay claim to the property,” she said.

Duma, who stays with her sisters along with their kids, said the title deed would help her qualify for an RDP house subsidy when the government allocates RDP houses to residents in her area. “My sisters and their kids will have a place they can call their own when I die,” she said.

She also said that is getting ready to register with a local Peoples Housing Project that will help her get an RDP house on the land she now owns. “I would not be able to join a PHP without the title deed,” she said.

Duma said she recommends the TSC to her friends when they want to be assisted with acquiring a title deed.

“Because the TSC helped me get a title deed, I always refer people who have properties that are not registered in their names to it,” she said.

*Not her real name