Municipal officials now face the very real threat of being fined or imprisoned over evictions following a judgment by acting judge Nigel Hollis.
Wednesday's groundbreaking ruling at the KwaZulu-Natal High Court compelled eThekwini municipality officials to provide 37 families living in a transit camp with permanent accommodation within three months – or face a fine or imprisonment.
eThekwini mayor James Nxumalo and city manager Sbu Sithole were included in the order that allows the city three months in which to house the families who were ordered to move from their homes in Siyanda informal settlement in 2009 to allow for the construction of a road.
One of the conditions of the eviction was that the municipality would provide the families with permanent housing within a year. The deadline had expired in 2010, with the families "abandoned" in the Richmond Farm transit camp near KwaMashu in Durban.
According to Teboho Mosikili, an attorney from the Socio-Economic Rights Institute which had assisted the families in the matter between Mchunu and others vs executive mayor of eThekwini and others, the judgment was "a victory for the rule of law".
"This case has important implications for local government accountability, as it means that municipal office-bearers can no longer hide behind nebulous administrations for the performance of constitutional obligations. Municipal office-bearers are responsible for giving effect to court orders and constitutional obligations placed on municipalities," said Mosikili.
"If they do not take this responsibility seriously, they can be held in contempt and fined or sent to prison. The mayor of eThekwini, the city manager and the director of housing have simply ignored my clients' repeated petitions that they comply with the court order. If they now continue to do so, the consequences for them could be very severe indeed," he added.
Bandile Mdlalose, general secretary of shackdweller movement Abahlali baseMjondolo, which had assisted the families in organizing and seeking legal counsel: "This judgment is a victory for all the shack dwellers that are dumped to rot in transit camps. We want to express our deepest gratitude to our legal team from Socio-Economic Rights Institute.
"While we celebrate this victory, Abahlali are worried that we may be attacked and receive death threats, as happened after the Constitutional Court victory against the KZN Slums Act when Kennedy Road was attacked leaving two people dead in September 2009."