/ 19 February 2008

Top court stops Jo’burg evictions

The City of Johannesburg cannot evict inner-city tenants living in central Johannesburg unless adequate alternative accommodation is provided, the Constitutional Court ruled on Tuesday.

”Potential homelessness must be considered by a city when it decides whether to evict people from buildings,” said the court in a statement after the ruling.

In a unanimous judgement by Judge Zak Yacoob, it was decided that while a municipality has an obligation to eliminate unsafe and unhealthy buildings, it also has a constitutional duty to provide access to adequate housing.

The court said meaningful engagement, in which tenants are treated as ”human beings”, has to take place between municipalities and people potentially being evicted.

In the future, courts will have to take into account whether there was meaningful engagement before they can grant an order evicting people from their homes.

The court also found the National Building Regulations and Building Standards Act to be unconstitutional. This Act makes it a crime for people to remain in buildings after a municipality has issued an eviction notice, but before any court has ordered an eviction.

The court ordered that a proviso be included that will only make it a crime for people to occupy a building if a court order for eviction has already been issued. The proviso will not apply to cases in which people have already been convicted of contravening the section.

The city was ordered to pay the costs of the applicants.

Eviction battle

The case involving tenants of the San Jose building in Berea — and those of a disused panel-beating workshop on Main Street in the city centre — began when the city applied to the Johannesburg High Court for the eviction of more than 400 occupiers of inner-city buildings, because the buildings were apparently unsafe and unhealthy.

The high court refused to evict the tenants. It ordered the city to remedy its housing programme, which was considered inadequate.

The city appealed to the Supreme Court of Appeals, which granted the eviction, on condition that alternative accommodation be provided to those left homeless.

Before the Constitutional Court gave judgement, it ordered the parties to engage meaningfully with each other. The court hoped the parties will find at least short-term solutions to improve living conditions and find alternative accommodation.

The parties reached consensus that the city will not eject the occupiers, that it will upgrade the buildings and that it will provide temporary accommodation. They also agreed to meet and discuss permanent housing solutions. The Constitutional Court made the agreement reached by the parties an order of the court.

Reacting to the judgement on Tuesday, tenants’ spokesperson Cherice Sibanda told South African Broadcasting Corporation news that she was very happy with the ruling. ”I’m so glad. I don’t know what to do. I’m very much happy. I think it sends a message to our government that really, what they were doing, it was totally unfair to the poor people,” she said.

A senior researcher at the Centre for Applied Legal Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand, Jackie Dugard, welcomed the ruling. ”For the applicants, as well as for poor occupiers more generally, the judgement represents a victory,” she said. — Sapa