A senior cabinet minister has called attention to what is an ongoing nightmare for buyers, sellers, developers - in fact anyone involved in property transactions: the deeds office.
Agriculture and land affairs minister, Thoko Didiza, tasked with reporting to Cabinet on the extent of foreign land ownership in South Africa, has been delayed in delivering her report - because she is awaiting information on title deeds.
Deputy minister of agriculture and land affairs, Dirk Du Toit, recently said in parliament that the present paper-based processing of deeds would be replaced by a fully electronic system 'to handle increasing volumes as land delivery initiatives gain momentum'.
The problem lies in the fact that the property boom over the past couple of years has left the deeds office swamped. Then there's the impact of BEE and government policy on low cost housing that has put even more pressure on the deeds office.
Now it is taking an inordinately long time - sometimes over three months - before papers are being delivered to the registering conveyancers.
The number of deeds being lodged and registered has increased by 25-to-30 percent and although the staff complement has been increased, data capturing has had no respite and the increased volumes have exacerbated the problem.
The process, in short, starts with the execution of deeds of transfer and the registration of mortgage bond in the deeds office. These are then numbered, embossed with the Registrar's seal of office then handed to the data department to capture and date before being sent to the microfilming department to be filmed for posterity
Here lies the root of many of the delays: outdated technology. The Cape Town deeds registry currently has eight filming machines which are no longer in production and cannot be replaced. Once they break down, parts are in short supply given that the machines are so outdated.
In addition, the processing equipment is also antiquated, having been in use for over 15 years. These machines have to film approximately 27 000 pages a day - but current volumes are around 35 000 pages a day, leaving a major shortfall.
While staff levels have been increased and staff are working extraordinary hours - from 7am to 7pm and over weekends too - this has not had a significant impact on the backlog. Besides, staff need to be trained and this also affects productivity as existing employees have to be removed from work to facilitate training.
While our sympathies lie with the deeds office and their problems, these unfortunately have a roll-on effect on everyone involved in property and these delays are costing a fortune.
And it's not going to go away. Government plans to introduce a further seven-to-13 million erven into the system in the near future so there is absolutely no question that the existing infrastructure can handle the resultant volumes.
A few years ago, the then-Chief Registrar of Deeds, Jan Slothouber, embarked on a project to implement electronic registration at deeds registries. Transaction advisors were appointed and the project started moving ahead.
But the project was stopped when the State Information Technology Agency (SITA) insisted that such projects were its domain.
After 18 months, there was still no action from SITA, and the Pretoria deeds office again attempted to get a project going provided they could levy a per-page click fee on firms requesting copies for a certain period in order to recoup their costs.
In my opinion, the minister needs to issue a directive to the deeds office to start embracing technology and make funds available to make it happen. While there may be certain people at the deeds office pushing for new technology, it often falls on deaf ears.
These delays have been going on for a considerable period of time and despite meetings between representatives of the attorneys' associations and the registrar of deeds, there has been no progress.
It is our view that the timeous delivery of deeds after registration is crucial for the proper functioning of this sector of the economy as not only do the delays affect property developers but they affect the man in the street who is unable to deal with a property purchased after registration as he is unable to on-transfer the property if he resells the same or to register a further mortgage bond.
It also prejudices the banks, as the mortgage bonds, which constitute their security, are not in their possession.
SARS has embraced technology. Isn't it time government allowed the Deeds Office to do the same? After all, property transactions are providing a major source of income for government. It's time for government to acknowledge the contribution to national coffers and make an investment in return.
Originally published in the Cape Times