/ 16 November 2012

Housing: Families resist demolition

The house of Ntombi Nqedlama's neighbour was demolished
The house of Ntombi Nqedlama's neighbour was demolished

Under apartheid, the bustling community of Lenasia was designated as an Indians-only township. Today it holds the alternate clash and hope of many cultures co-existing.

Extension 13 feels the prosperous reaches of a large new mall. There is a settled, thriving feel to the place – one drives past newly plastered walls, newly painted fences, the smell of meat in the air at dinner time. A few modest RDP houses keep up appearances among their larger neighbours. There are double-storey houses, homes with pillars and turrets and freshly erected blocks of face-brick apartments for rent.

But, according to the Gauteng department of local government and housing, much of the land on which these homes were built was acquired illegally and belongs to the state. Department spokesperson Motsamai Motlhaolwa said the residents were told in 2006 not to build on the land. The department obtained a court order for the residents to stop constructing houses, but they purportedly persisted, Motlhaolwa told Sapa. The department claims to have been issuing notices for residents to vacate their homes for more than a year.

At the centre of the debacle is a syndicate that had allegedly issued fraudulent title deeds on the department's letterhead featuring the signature of its chief. These alleged fraudsters had convinced land buyers that the land could be bought and would not be repossessed (See "The trail of destruction"). But, according to the landowners, department employees were the first to sell land illegally.

Ownership documents
"The government fraudsters opened up the way for other fraudsters to do the same," said a homeowner, who asked not to be named. "You can't just demolish these people's houses and throw their kids out. These people were robbed by other people."

According to Lenasia homeowner Nomzamo Grootbooi, people were willing to trust the department officials' claims that the land ownership documents were legitimate because of their desperation. "If for example, somebody stole your handbag and you were desperate for help and then you saw somebody wearing a police uniform, you would run to that person. [Desperate for houses] we did the same," she said.

Grootbooi bought her home after applying and fruitlessly waiting for an RDP home since 1996. "When we go to the department of housing [to follow up], they say don't call us again, we will phone you. From 1996 I've been waiting for the call. How long will we be in the queue?"

Homeowner Dudu Ngubeni said that none of the residents who bought land knew that it was illegal. "Some people borrowed money from the bank – maybe R200 000. Would you spend all your money on land that you know is illegal? You go there as a desperate person and think you are doing the right thing. We never knew, man! We never knew!"

The trail of destruction

2006: The Gauteng department of housing and local ­government issues a court order to stop people building on its land.

2009: Three members of a syndicate are arrested for illegally selling land in Lenasia. The trial is set for early December. Later, one accused enters into a plea bargain and is sentenced to six years' imprisonment.

2010: The department

demolishes the first "illegal" homes.

2011: The department says it circulated notices for houses that were to be demolished.

November 8: The department demolishes 37 houses. Residents protest.

November 9: The department demolishes 14 houses. Residents lose an application for an urgent court interdict to stop the evictions.

November 12: The South Gauteng High Court suspends the demolition of the houses for at least 24 hours, following an urgent application from the Human Rights Commission.

November 13: The demolition is halted for another 24 hours and the court application is postponed until Wednesday to allow time for the commission to gather information.

A second high court application dealing with the same issue is postponed. The case files have "gone missing" from the judges' chambers. This case, opened in 2010, is funded by the residents of Lenasia extension 13.

November 15: The court application hearing is postponed until November 23 to allow the Human Rights Commission more time to gather "information required by the court".

Lives come crashing down

Ntombi Nqedlama's new double bed sits neatly unused every night. The sole piece of furniture in the main bedroom, it is still in plastic packaging. The plastic protects it from the water that drips from the roof after this week's rains.

Nqedlama lives in the second bedroom, preferring to share a bed with her sons. Since last Thursday, Nqedlama has been unable to keep out the rain. Or the fear.

The day the bulldozers arrived "I looked out the window", she said. "Jissis. There were a lot of cars, bulldozers, those police with berets." Under instruction from the Gauteng housing department, the bulldozers were set to demolish the first of 113 houses that were allegedly built illegally in Lenasia extension 13 and Lenasia South extension 4.

After it razed her neighbour's home to the ground, the bulldozers broke down the perimeter wall and started for Nqedlama's home.

"A Caterpillar came into the yard," she said. "They wanted to use it to break down the house. It came right here." She pointed at the front door.

But in a moment of blind desperation, Nqedlama grabbed her son Sabelo (10) by his arm and picked up Nthando (2).

"Me, I took my babies and ran inside the house. I was looking out the [front] window shouting 'You must bury me inside the house! It's my house! I didn't do a crime!'

Slowly but surely
"The police started to look at me and said: 'No. Come outside!' The neighbours started to scream at me and said: 'Please! Think about the babies!'

"And I said I am thinking about the babies. This is shelter for them. If I come outside they will break my house. I can't."

The Caterpillars eventually reversed off the land. But "at night, when I hear police sirens, I start jumping in my bed".

It has taken three years of wages to "slowly but surely" build up her home. Nqedlama received a ­pay-out from a car accident three years ago and gave R25000 to a "private" landowner for her land.

She erected a shack and lived there with her children while she built their home. She and her sons only moved the few metres from the shack to the house last month.

Nqedlama has not gone to work in a week for fear that the department will demolish her home in her absence. She has worked as a cleaner at Bruma Lake since 2009, but her position is "only temporary".

"Now they tell me, because I have been gone for a long time, they will replace me with another one."