A small group of former Schubart Park tenants were celebrating outside the abandoned buildings early Tuesday afternoon, after news reached them that their appeal to the Constitutional Court had succeeded.
"We don't know where everyone is, and a lot of people are at work, but we're trying to let them all know," said one of the group. "We're very happy."
Not that they'll be going back into their flats in downtown Pretoria any time soon. The court gave residents and the city a deadline of January 31 to come up with an agreement that would see the apartments reoccupied, and actually refurbishing the ailing buildings will take considerably longer. Although work on making the buildings habitable again should have been nearing an end by now, under an original timeline, it has not yet begun.
Residents, who have been in what some describe as shocking temporary accommodation for more than a year, are looking forward to an earlier deadline, one for an agreement by the end of November on proper interim housing.
"In Schubart, I was in a two bedroom flat," said one resident, who did not want to be named in fear of victimisation by the city. "Now I'm in this small place, where my children have to sleep on the same mattress in the living room. Every night I pick bedbugs from my baby. Do you know how sore it is when those things bite you?"
The buildings were emptied in September 2011, after a violent protest that followed an electricity outage of more than a week, leaving residents without water and navigating pitch-dark stairwells 21-storeys high. With rocks raining down from above as police fired rubber bullets over the heads of running women and children, residents and the city argued about whether the action constituted an evacuation in the face of imminent danger or a long-planned eviction under the cover of an emergency.
On Tuesday, the ConCourt weighed in on the side of the residents. The fact that the city had initially continued to argue that the removal had been lawful, the court said, "lends some credence to the assertion by the applicants that the City used the crisis as an excuse to evict the residents without complying with the law."
In fact, residents go considerably further than that. Some believe that the City created the crisis in the first place, failing to properly maintain the buildings and refusing to restore electricity with a view to clearing the site for future development. Schubart Park, they point out, is just on the outskirts of the CBD, and occupies valuable land.
The City did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Tuesday, but at the time said that Schubart Park had become too unsafe for its engineers to tend to, ultimately leading to a breakdown in basement water pumps that kept transformers dry.
That the City may have wanted to rid itself of the inhabitants of Schubart Park is another theory the ConCourt lent some credence to in its ruling. "Unfortunately the history of the City's treatment of the residents of Schubart Park also shows that they appeared to regard them, generally, as 'obnoxious social nuisances', who contributed to crime, lawlessness and other social ills," wrote Justice Johan Froneman, in an unanimous judgment. "If there were individuals at Schubart Park who were guilty of, or contributed to, these ills, they should have been dealt with in accordance with the provisions of the law relating to them."
Last September, with the apartments emptied of what the city says was around 8 000 people and what residents say were around 3 000, the high court in Pretoria ruled it would be unsafe to allow immediate re-occupation. Sending especially children back into the slums with their rubbish-chocked stairwells and dry fire hoses, Judge Bill Prinsloo found, would be unconscionable. Instead, the City had to arrange alternative quarters, while it determined whether the buildings could be saved at all.
But those court orders weren't entirely in keeping with the Constitution, the ConCourt said on Tuesday, and in effect allowed Tshwane to "determine when, for how long and ultimately whether at all, the applicants may return to Schubart Park". Instead, the constitutional justices said, the high court must oversee the creation of an agreement that residents will pay for municipal services, while the city must restore them and their possessions to the centrally-located high-rises – regardless of whether they are illegal immigrants or were occupying apartments illegally.
That, however, is not going to be an easy process, considering the level of mistrust among some of the former residents.
"They said they were taking us out of here because we are illegals," said a Zimbabwean national, who artfully avoided answering questions on whether she is legally in South Africa. "Now your court says they must make a plan for us, even if we are illegals. Who do you think the City police listen to, the City or the court?"