Court halts Pomfret relocation

The Pretoria High Court has issued an interim interdict to restrain the government from relocating people from the former Pomfret military base in the North West.

The order also brings a temporary halt to the demolishing of property in the town.

Judge Brian Southwood granted an urgent court order to the 6 000-strong Pomfret community, giving the ministers of safety and security, public works and defence until May 12 to supply reasons why a permanent order should not be granted against them.

In recent weeks, habitable houses in Pomfret have been damaged or destroyed in a bid to pressure residents, mostly former soldiers, to relocate, residents said.

Pomfret, a former asbestos mining town, once housed the old defence force’s infamous 32 Battalion, but many old and infirm residents remained behind when the unit was disbanded in 1993 and most of its members were integrated into the South African National Defence Force (SANDF).

The community, many of them pensioners and children, is Portuguese speaking.

The responsibility for the town was handed over to the Public Works Department after the defence force left, although public enquiries were still regularly referred to the SANDF.

An SANDF delegation informed the community in 2005 that they would be removed and the town demolished, purportedly because of asbestos contamination.

The community, however, denied that there had been any engagement with government authorities on the alleged asbestos threat.

It contended the government policy was in any event to invest in rehabilitation and not the evacuation and demolition of asbestos-affected communities.

One of the inhabitants, primary school principal Domingos Sebastiao, said in court papers that the dispersal of the community would leave its members alone and vulnerable to persecution and xenophobia—which they had already experienced in their dealings with local authorities, including the police and local municipality.

He said the most vulnerable members of the community, including the elderly and disabled, would lose their support network if the close-knit and culturally unique community was destroyed.

The community mostly comprised retired war veterans and their dependants.

Sebastiao accused authorities of first using a “scorched-earth” tactic to make the town uninhabitable and thereafter going over to a “crowbar” campaign of harassment, intimidation and violence to force people to leave.

These tactics had caused the community to become angry, suspicious and despondent, as it was clear that the manner in which the removal process was being conducted was “secretive, non-participatory and arrogant”, Sebastiao said.—Sapa

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