The outcry over this past week’s brutal eviction of shack dwellers in Lwandle, outside Cape Town, has prompted new Minister of Human Settlements Lindiwe Sisulu, to step in and temporarily allow residents back on the land from which they were evicted. She promised to investigate the matter and pursue what she called “unanswered questions”.
There are indeed many unanswered questions about this eviction.
On Monday, photos appeared on social media, showing a large-scale operation by the sheriff of the court, backed up by the South African Police Service, the various law enforcement agencies of Cape Town, and an outsourced demolition team. Hundreds of homes were demolished and residents fought with police, trying to keep their furniture and other belongings from being destroyed.
On Tuesday, Eyewitness News published a shocking image of a home set on fire, saying: “Authorities are now torching the shacks while residents watch … helplessly.”
It is clear from the information available that the entire operation was haphazard and brutal. Evicting residents during a week of fierce rains shows a complete lack of empathy for the residents’ vulnerable situation.
Forcibly removing residents and destroying people’s belongings without warning suggests the action was not only about enforcing the law but also about punishing shack dwellers.
This is reminiscent of apartheid-era evictions and, more recently, the similarly illegal evictions at the Marikana land occupations in Cape Town and Durban.
Both Sanral, which owns the land and says it is needed for a highway extension, and the City of Cape Town claim there is an eviction order that justifies the sheriff’s actions. But, in reality, this eviction order does not exist. What exists is a court interdict from January, preventing any new occupations of the land. This interdict is being used to evict anyone Sanral claims arrived after January.
It is unconstitutional to evict a community without an eviction order. This is required by the Prevention of Illegal Eviction (PIE) Act. Indeed, a very similar order is now awaiting judgment in the Constitutional Court. Zulu and 389 Others vs eThekwini Municipality and Others specifically addresses the unconstitutionality of such interdicts.
Tashwill Esterhuizen, a lawyer for the Socio-Economic Rights Institute, explains: “The order does not have any named respondents … which I think is a problem. Even if the order is valid, it is unclear whether the sheriff only evicted those people who came on [to] the property after the order was obtained, or whether those who occupied the property prior to the order were evicted as well.”
In other words, Sanral, which cannot legally evict unknown people, is essentially using the interdict to skirt PIE and to remove anyone they, not the court, deem to be new occupiers.
The illegality of the evictions is only part of a much wider injustice, one being obfuscated by the political bickering between the City of Cape Town, led by the DA, and Sanral, which is wholly owned by the ANC-led government.
Perusing the contradictory statements by the minister of transport, on the one hand, and the City of Cape Town, on the other, one thing becomes clear besides their common desire to pass the buck: both levels of government seek to continue to evict shack dwellers, thereby focusing on the symptom rather than the cause of land occupations as well as to use this focus to deny the urgent necessity of large-scale land redistribution in South Africa’s urban areas.
In other words, both levels of government see the problem of land invasions as a result of high levels of urbanisation and the limited resources available for housing for the poor. The issue then becomes a technical issue: improving the efficiency of the delivery of houses and other services.
The City of Cape Town said it was not required to provide alternative accommodation for those evicted, saying that such action would prejudice those already on the housing waiting list. Never mind the fact that there is, in fact, no housing waiting list, and the city is constitutionally required to provide emergency housing for such residents, as per the Constitutional Court’s judgment in Blue Moonlight Properties vs Occupiers.
Though residents, with the support of the Ses’khona People’s Rights Movement, have put pressure on Sanral to allow them back on the land for the time being, the department of human settlements has said the evictions are justified, but that they should have been done “in a more humane way”.
Humane or not, the government’s logic of zero toleration for land occupations obscures the root cause of the housing crisis that has led to such invasions. It has little to do with service delivery and everything to do with the unequal distribution of city land, a skewed situation that is the dual result of apartheid and post-apartheid land policies and the unregulated property market, which works against the poor.
People don’t occupy land on road reserves, on private property, or next to dangerous train tracks because they’re trying to jump some sort of nonexistent housing queue, because they’re trying to make life difficult for government, or just for the fun of it. People occupy land because of the overcrowded, expensive and uninhabitable living conditions in which they find themselves.
The only way to stop land occupations is to take the huge swaths of land owned by the rich and give it to the poor, and to put in place protections to prevent that land from ending up back in the hands of a few.
The only way to deal with the housing crisis is to desegregate Cape Town completely, expropriating land and mansions from Bishopscourt to Camps Bay and building public housing on large areas of unused land such as the Mowbray Golf Course (owned by the city) and the presidential estate in Rondebosch (national land).
Many countries now hailed as development success stories reached high levels of economic growth immediately after extensive land redistribution in both rural and urban areas. This includes the so-called Asian Tigers, such as South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore, as well as the formerly social-democratic Costa Rica and even state-capitalist China.
It’s time to stop conceptually divorcing service delivery from the necessity of dismantling the apartheid cityscape and ensuring – as is constitutionally required – that each and every person has the basics of land and security of tenure.
Jared Sacks is a Cape Town activist and writer