Law enforcement battles Emsindweni residents as evictions increase

(Ashraf Hendricks/GroundUp)

(Ashraf Hendricks/GroundUp)

In recent months, running battles have erupted between law enforcement and land occupiers in Khayelitsha who claim they have been illegally evicted. Now, as people attempt to rebuild their homes, they are fighting against the high cost of living in one of Cape Town’s biggest townships and the law enforcement they believe have acted illegally.

Andiswa Kolanisa (44) is sitting inside a home belonging to one of her neighbours. Her own shack is still being rebuilt by a group of three men, who have managed to get the poles up and are now working on the walls.

As Kolanisa looks out at the remnants of her shack, she can vividly recall how it was torn down by law enforcement and the anti-land invasion unit – a unit within municipal law enforcement that removes shacks during evictions – less than a week ago. Upon seeing officers evicting and demolishing shacks, Kolanisa ran into her home to try to fight them off.

“When I was inside I closed the door and one lady kicked the door. I tried to close it again and she kicked it again. It was four ladies and they came in. They said ‘get out of the house, why are you doing this [fighting the eviction]?’,” she says.

She says the women law enforcement officers began pushing her until her back hit the wall of her shack. The move made Kolanisa more angry.

“I said: ‘Maybe you are not staying here in the location and you are staying in Constantia, because you cannot do this to me,’” she says.

In the small settlement, known as Emsindweni, in Makhaza, Khayelitsha, hammers persistently bang against corrugated iron sheets as residents put the pieces of their homes together.

For the past three weeks, evictions have taken place three times – once per week. Residents say that law enforcement have yet to produce a court order that would legalise the evictions. Police and the municipal law enforcement did not respond to comment at the time of publishing.

Emsindweni means “out of anger” and it is here where hundreds of residents in Khayelitsha chose to occupy municipal land when a land occupation was organised in mid-February. It remains clear how or who the occupation was organised by, but residents in the settlement said that they heard through neighbours that people were putting up shacks on vacant land.

March 3 was the date of the first eviction. Ten days later, after residents had rebuilt, law enforcement returned to remove the shacks, and on April 3 they once again came back to demolish the shacks.

But the land occupiers remain defiant. In Kolanisa’s case, the cost of living in Khayelitsha has become too high, and the vetkoek she sells on the side of the road does little to make a difference.

Before coming to stay in Emsindweni, she had rented a space in a backyard for R2 500 per month. Her 4m x 4m shack, which she bought from a street vendor, cost her R6 000. She’s paying it off in monthly installments that add R500 to her expenses.

“I’m 44 years old and I’m 21 years on the waiting list and still there’s nothing for me,” Kolanisa says.

Shacks have become a lucrative business in Khayelitsha, with more community members opting to purchase the structures instead of finding scrap material to build their own. The going rate for a shack could cost between R3 000 to R6 000 on the busy Japhta Masemola road inside Khayelitsha, but residents choose to make the investment in monthly installments because these shacks are more hard wearing against harsh weather.

The Social Justice Coalition (SJC), a community-based organisation that focuses on service delivery in the township, has been monitoring land occupations around the township and the evictions that have followed.

According to Musa Gwebani, the SJC’s co-head of programmes and projects, police have been unwilling to open cases against law enforcement who have destroyed structures without a court order because they say residents are to blame for occupying land.

“I observed one of the anti-land invasion unit people who went out of his way to take a crowbar and make holes in a door. You can re-use a door for another purpose,” Gwebani says.

“While they were doing that, they would be using racial slurs against people and call them kaffirs,” she says, referring to young coloured men who are employed in the anti-land invasion unit.

Sonia Sodzeme (32), a community chairperson for a land occupation in Monwabisi Park, Khayelitsha, said that when she was evicted, similar language was used.

Sodzeme and 29 others had occupied land near houses in Monwabisi Park in November 2017. They do not know who the land owners are.  In February 2018, they were evicted three times and have yet to rebuild their shacks. Besides needing a home, Sodzeme said that the land they had occupied was chosen to prevent crime in the area.

“This side where we were staying, it was dangerous for the community. People were being raped and they were smoking drugs. That’s why we ended up going that side, saying let’s put our houses so we can stop this thing,” she says.

The land was also chosen because it was far enough from a nearby housing development, so that residents would not disturb the building work.

As she walks through Monwabisi Park, Sodzeme greets the people who were her neighbours. She is now squatting with a family nearby where the land occupation occured, but says that out of the 30 people who occupied only 15 have been able to retrieve the materials used to build the shacks from law enforcement.

After the eviction, materials were confiscated and residents – both from Monwabisi and Emsindweni – say that doors, windows, and sheets of corrugated iron and wood were deliberately vandalised to stop them from rebuilding.

Sodzeme says that her community has refused to rebuild in solidarity with those who have not yet received their materials.

“If these 15 people who have materials put up their shacks and the other 15 people don’t then what will we do? It will end up making us fight and then we will be divided,” she says.

During the eviction ordeal, Sodzeme says her jewelry was stolen by law enforcement, after officers berated residents for living in shacks. 

“They said that we are dogs and that our parents were staying inside the shack and we still want to stay inside the shack so we want to be a dog like your mothers,’” she recalls.

“They said that if we were DA [Democratic Alliance] people we would not do this fucking shit.”

Both the police and law enforcement had not provided comment at the time of publishing, but mayoral committee member for safety and security JP Smith has said that illegal land occupations could not be tolerated. Smith made the comments, while speaking about evictions in general around the Cape, after a court ruling in the Pretoria high court earlier this week said that metro police and waste management services may not confiscate belongings from homeless people during an eviction.

“No personal items like food, money, medication, clothing and identity documents are removed, in accordance with the standard operating procedure. Anything discarded by street people following the removal of illegal structures by law enforcement is collected by the city’s Solid Waste Department and disposed of,” Smith told the Weekend Argus. “Any person who feels they have been unfairly treated by any member of the city’s enforcement agencies can lay a charge with the (police), if the alleged ill-treatment is of a criminal nature.”

Sodzeme and Kolanisa are now working with the SJC to find lawyers to tackle the eviction. In Emsindweni, residents are determined to at least find why law enforcement showed them no court order for the eviction.

“I told them: ‘This is my house, if I have to die, I must die here in my house,’” Kolanisa says. 

Ra'eesa Pather

Ra'eesa Pather

Ra’eesa Pather is a general news journalist with the Mail & Guardian’s online team. She cut her teeth at The Daily Vox in Cape Town before moving to Johannesburg and joining the M&G. She's written about memory, race and gender in columns and features, and has dabbled in photography. Read more from Ra'eesa Pather

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