Face to face with the Penny Sparrows in the realty business

Journalist relates her own experience with racism

Many South Africans have had to endure the pain inflicted by racism in the real estate industry. Stories abound of people being denied accommodation on the basis of their skin colour. In the wake of the Penny Sparrow debacle, Stellenbosch journalist Rene van der Berg wrote a column about the indignity of repeatedly having doors slammed in your face.

Dear Penny

My letter to you is somewhat different to all the hate mail and tweets you’ve grown accustomed to these recent weeks. I don’t want to tell you how much I hated your baboon comment and subsequent failed apology. Instead I want to thank you.

Yes, I want to thank you dearly for opening up an evil so embedded in some of the realtors I dealt with before, that I once thought it ought to be this way.

See, Penny, I have so much experience of having doors slammed in my non-white face by realtors. So many times an estate agent blatantly told me, “…sorry but this place is not available for non-whites”. I would want to go as far and say ask any person of colour living in Bloemfontein looking for an apartment to rent, and this would be their story.

The first encounter with this gross realtor racism came when I was just 22 years old, starting my very first job in Bloemfontein. I was interested in renting a flat in a good area, but after completing application forms (in which I had to state my race for ‘statistical purposes’ – how naïve I was) the realtor told me that “… there is another place, much more suitable.”

Upon my arrival, moving all the way from Kimberley, I was shocked to see that this ‘bachelors flat’ was a room with en suite toilet in a burrow for drug dealers and human traffickers. (A few weeks after moving in there was a sting operation by the police in this building and four missing minors were found in this very building, working as sex workers.) 

How was this accommodation suitable for me, Penny?

After that incident I was desperately looking for a new flat. Again I had to indicate my race on application forms for ‘statistical purposes’.

“We have a nice place for you among your own people,” an estate agent told me after I applied for a garden cottage in a ‘white’ part of town.

Many times I would enquire after an apartment and, thanks to my surname and Afrikaans, agents would be ‘glad to help me’. Arriving to view the flat, it will suddenly not be available there at the doorstep of this place that I enquired after hours ago. Many agents went as far as to tell me “…the owner specified that this flat is for white tenants only”.

I would even be told, that I had a “… high risk profile” apparently determined by age, race and income.

I complained at the housing tribunal once. I never heard from them again.

The local newspaper once wrote a tiny piece on my experience. No one batted an eye. No one cared if apartments are not available for non-white tenants. Only after you happened, Penny, Mail & Guardian had a look at it. (Racism in real estate, 15/01/16)

Much has happened in South Africa in the meantime.  I moved from Bloemfontein to Johannesburg, and thought I left this behind me, but (as recently as) two years ago a dear friend was left in a very bad predicament when collecting the key for the townhouse she will be renting.

See, Penny, she was pregnant in her last trimester and due for birth in two weeks. She too, with her very Afrikaans surname, applied to rent the townhouse. In the meantime estate agents no longer need racial statistical information from their application forms. On the day of the planned move, she was informed that “…the townhouse was ‘accidentally’ given to another tenant. Sorry for the slip up and here is your deposit back.” Shortly after that incident, the very townhouse was advertised again as available.

In the meantime I wanted to buy my first property. Approaching agents telephonically, I was often shocked at the remarks agents would make without any shame.

“I’m sure you don’t want to live between ‘die goed’ (‘this stuff’)” one agent told me as a few gentlemen were walking past us.

Now I am not saying, Penny, that all realtors are the same. That would make me no better than you. What I am saying is that racism is so deeply rooted in some of us, that we don’t know it. Many South Africans would claim they are not racist, because “…my black domestic worker is like family”.

As long as we don’t have to share the same space, hey Penny. Am I right? Is that is why some realtors would go the extra mile to keep clients happy?