The University of Johannesburg wants the land it leased to the Auckland Park Theological Seminary 30 years ago back, after the latter ceded it's lease to a third party for almost 10 times the amount it paid for it.
The University of Johannesburg (UJ) has been accused of exploiting the plight of poor students to try and wrangle control of a valuable piece of land in the city centre.
Its protracted legal tug of war with the Auckland Park Theological Seminary (ATS) for the land, spilled over into the Constitutional Court on Thursday.
The two have been at odds for the better of the last decade.
UJ in 1996 agreed to lease the land to ATS for 30 years, for a once-off rental of R700 000. But the university in 2012 learnt that for the princely sum of R6.5 million – almost 10 times as much as it had paid UJ – ATS had ceded its
rights under the lease to a property developer called Wamjay Holdings Investments.
UJ subsequently moved to cancel the lease and evict ATS. Its stance was that its deal with ATS had been dependent on the seminary using the land to build a theological college and Wamjay now wanted to erect an Islamic-based
primary and high school.
The matter ended up in the High Court in Johannesburg, where a judge in 2017 ruled in favour of UJ and granted the university an eviction order.
That ruling was overturned by the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) this year, when evidence regarding the background and context of the lease agreement between UJ and ATS was ruled inadmissible. UJ has now turned to the ConCourt to have the high court’s findings reinstated.
The university’s general counsel, Patrick O’Brien, described the land as a “critical resource which is currently incapable of utilisation” in the founding papers.
“It is the [university’s] intention to use the leased premises for much-needed student accommodation,” O’Brien said.
“The [university] – as with other public universities – has a dire need for student accommodation. The university’s students are overwhelmingly first-generation students and include a substantial number from poor families,” he claimed.
“The effect of the purported cession is to prevent the [university] from utilising the leased premises either as a campus with a multitude of student facilities – as originally intended – or for student accommodation”.
But ATS principal Willem Hattingh was having none of it in the answering papers.
“The truth of the matter is that UJ has now realised the value of the leased premises, with many property developers seeking to acquire such property for student housing, and UJ now seeks to acquire occupation of the leased premises for its own requirements,” he slapped back.
“The reliance on the needs of poor students by UJ is contrived and self-serving”.
In court, advocate George Kairinos, for ATS, argued the SCA had been on the money.
But advocate Alfred Cockrell, for UJ, said the appellate court had “got the law wrong” and that its judgment was in conflict with case law.
“The principle they cited is not a correct reflection of the principles that apply when a court decides whether evidence regarding background and context is admissible or not,” he said.
Justice Leona Theron raised questions around the fact that this was, at the end of the day, publicly owned land.
“This is publicly owned land that was expropriated and then given to a public university. Would that be relevant?” she
But he replied there was no evidence on this put up at trial and it was, perhaps, “a little unfair at this point”.
Judgment was reserved.
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