/ 24 August 2008

‘It’s our duty not to be silent’

After 15 years of fighting with government and the Cape Town municipality about their right to live in Langa, the Joe Slovo community finally had their day in the Constitutional Court this week.

Opposing their right to continue living in Cape Town’s Langa township — earmarked for housing development — were Housing Minister Lindiwe Sisulu, government-appointed housing agency Thubelisha Homes, former Western Cape housing minister Richard Dyantyi and the city of Cape Town.

They argue that the squatters are obstructing the delivery of houses to the poor.

Five months ago beleaguered Cape Judge President John Hlophe ruled that the Joe Slovo squatters should be evicted to make way for Sisulu’s N2 Gateway Housing Project’s phase two and three.

This was after the project had been stalled for more than two years because of the squatters’ refusal to move to a temporary relocation area in Delft, 10km from the city.

Hlophe’s ruling, which upheld government’s Breaking New Ground housing policy, found that the Joe Slovo residents were unlawful occupants of this piece of prime Cape Town real estate and had no valid expectation of being housed there.

Central to the Joe Slovo community’s case is their insistence that they have no faith in an undertaking by the authorities that they will be allowed to return to Langa after the area has been developed.

During phase one the original residents of Joe Slovo were promised that they would be rehoused in Langa once the development was finalised. However, with that phase completed, only one resident of 705 was given the opportunity to return.

In a surprise move, the Constitutional Court gave the community permission to challenge the ruling and approach it without going through the Supreme Court of Appeal.

At Thursday’s hearing judges Kate O’Regan and Zac Yacoob questioned the shack-dwellers’ legal representatives, Geoff Budlender and Pete Hathorn, on whether their clients could legitimately expect to continue living in Joe Slovo.

The judges suggested that the squatters could not have expected to live indefinitely in the area and could reasonably expect to be evicted once development started.

Budlender and Hathorn, representing two different sections of the community, had argued that the community had a “legitimate expectation” of residence. They also argued that there had been inadequate consultation between authorities and the squatters.

“I contend for a legal approach and not a legalistic approach,” Budlender told the court.

Deputy chief justice Dikgang Moseneke intervened to suggest that the parties talk to each other and advise the court on a “just and equitable” solution.

The community law centre of the University of the Western Cape and the Centre on Housing Rights for Evictions were admitted as friends of the court, in support of the resident’s right to be properly consulted before being evicted.

After travelling to Johannesburg by train and spending the night at the Methodist Church in Braamfontein, about 200 Joe Slovo residents arrived at the Constitutional Court on Thursday in high spirits.

After the morning’s argument, the mood was more sombre however. “It’s a sad day for us because we’re not supposed to be here fighting with our own government,” said community spokesperson Manyenzeke Sopaqa.

“All my life I’ve been poor and homeless fighting for the right to be heard and consulted. We should be in Cape Town celebrating the birthday of the United Democratic Front. Now, not even this Constitutional Court gives me the comfort that the poor people’s struggle for dignity is over. The road of the poor and homeless is long — our story is a test for democracy and our Constitution and we’re still struggling.”

Joe Slovo leader Mzwanele Zulu said the squatters were angry with the government.

“I don’t know why we are here in 2008 fighting about evictions and our right to be heard and holding those in power to promises they make so lightly to the poor.

“They don’t want to develop that land for the poor — their aim is to make money and it’s our duty not to be silenced.”