What to do if your landlord is violating your rights

The Rental Housing Tribunal is there to help

The housing crisis in South Africa has led to a shortage of affordable housing options, resulting in many individuals living in overcrowded or unsafe conditions. This has also created challenges for landlords who struggle to find suitable tenants. To address some of these issues, the Rental Housing Act was passed in 1999. However, many people are still not aware of their tenant rights, concerned instead about their responsibilities. 

Tenants have a lot of obligations, dictated by the lease agreement. First and foremost, they have a duty to pay rent at a set time every month. They also have a responsibility to keep the property in good order and report any breakages or other problems to the landlord. They must abide by the terms of the lease agreement; only use the property for its intended purpose (e.g., not use a residential property for commercial purposes); and not breach any other conditions of occupancy (e.g., keeping pets if not permitted). It’s easy to think the landlord has all the rights and the tenant has all the responsibilities. But tenants also have rights, and the law is very clear on the recourse available to tenants should the landlord violate those rights.

Tenants’ rights

The tenant has the right to a property that is habitable and in good condition. Unacceptable living conditions, such as overcrowding or hygiene issues, are a breach of tenant rights. A habitable property means the landlord maintains the property and makes repairs when necessary. The landlord may not disconnect essential services, even if the rent has not been paid. The tenant also has a right to receipts or statements with regard to payments made, i.e., for rent and utilities, etc. The tenant has the right to not be discriminated against, on the grounds of race, sex, sexual preference, religion, etc. The tenant has the right not to be unlawfully evicted, i.e., without the correct legal process having been followed. The landlord may not change the locks or seize the tenant’s possessions, or put belongings out on the street. 

The landlord also may not increase the rent by an unfair amount or outside the time period indicated in the lease. For example, most leases allow for a set percentage increase on the renewal of the lease, usually at the annual anniversary. The landlord may not arbitrarily increase the rent without adhering to those conditions. And lastly, at the end of the tenancy, the tenant has a right to the return of the deposit, after deductions for any damages.

What to do if the landlord violates these rights

In the first instance, we always advise landlords and tenants to talk to each other. Most issues can be resolved by good communication, and many disputes are the result of misunderstanding or poor communication. So if you find your rights have been or are being violated, try to initiate a conversation with your landlord to resolve the matter. If they are not open to dialogue, or if a frank discussion doesn’t clear things up, further channels are available.

Role of Rental Housing Tribunal

The function of the Rental Housing Tribunal is dispute settlement between tenants and landlords. The service is free to both parties and is supported by the Department of Human Settlements. The Tribunal’s role is to:

  • Harmonise relationships between landlords and tenants in the rental housing sector
  • Resolve disputes that arise due to unfair practices
  • Inform landlords and tenants about their rights and obligations in terms of the Rental Housing Act
  • Make recommendations to relevant stakeholders

How to lodge a complaint with the Rental Housing Tribunal

Anyone can lodge a complaint with the Rental Housing Tribunal and there is no need for legal representation. Complaint forms can be found on the Human Settlements website. Documents should be lodged with the Tribunal, including a copy of the lease and ID document, and any supporting documentation (rental statements, letters of request for repairs, etc.). The Tribunal will review the complaint to determine if there is a legitimate dispute. While waiting for the Tribunal’s ruling, the landlord may not commence eviction proceedings, the tenant must continue to pay rent, and the landlord must continue to maintain the property. 

If the Tribunal determines the complaint is genuine, it will attempt to resolve the dispute through mediation. If mediation is unsuccessful, the next step is arbitration (i.e., a hearing designed to resolve disputes), which both landlord and tenant must attend. The Tribunal’s ruling at the hearing is binding on both parties. Failure by either party to abide by the Tribunal’s ruling may result in criminal proceedings. A ruling by the Rental Housing Tribunal is considered an order of the Magistrate’s Court. As such, it can be appealed in the High Court.

Court vs. Tribunal

There are a few instances in which a court of law can be used to solve a complaint rather than the Tribunal. If the tenant is in rental arrears, the landlord may go to court to claim the amount owed, but only if unfair practice is not involved. If the landlord has grounds for eviction, they must go to court for an eviction order. The Tribunal’s powers do not extend to granting an order to evict a tenant. For all issues involving a breach of tenant rights, the Rental Housing Tribunal is the appropriate vehicle for resolution.

For further information

Simon Dippenaar & Associates, Inc. is a law firm of specialist eviction lawyers in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban, helping both landlords and tenants with rental housing matters. Contact one of our eviction attorneys on 086 099 5146 or simon@sdlaw.co.za if you need advice on any aspect of rental housing or landlord–tenant relations.

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The information on this website is provided to assist the reader with a general understanding of the law. While we believe the information to be factually accurate, and have taken care in our preparation of these pages, these articles cannot and do not take individual circumstances into account and are not a substitute for personal legal advice. If you have a legal matter that concerns you, please consult a qualified attorney. Simon Dippenaar & Associates takes no responsibility for any action you may take as a result of reading the information contained herein (or the consequences thereof), in the absence of professional legal advice.