On a mattress decorated with tiny South African flags, a baby girl is bundled tightly against the rain and cold that envelopes Cape Town. Her fingers curiously play with a piece of cardboard just in front of her. As she feels the thick paper, her eyes dance across the bold red words written on it: “Land for living”.
It’s Wednesday afternoon, and people inside the Cape Town Civic Centre are beginning to restlessly make their way home. As they walk down the stairs leading out from the municipal headquarters, they pass by this baby and at least 50 other mattresses that have been neatly placed on the civic centre’s outside plaza, just next to Hertzog Boulevard.
“This is a symbolic occupation to show what has been happening across the city, to show that people have been rendered homeless by the City of Cape Town,” says Axolile Notywala, the general secretary of the Social Justice Coalition (SJC).
“We’re not saying people should not be evicted, but that must happen within the bounds of the law.”
In recent months, Notywala and his colleagues at the SJC have helped support people they say have been evicted by the City of Cape Town without a court order. The last round of reported violent evictions took place early in April where residents — occupying land in a settlement they named Emsindweni — watched as their shacks were demolished without warning.
Andiswa Kolanisa (44) tried to fight law enforcement, but, inevitably, her shack was destroyed.
“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 recalled at the time.
“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 said.
Now, Kolanisa is leading protesters outside the civic centre. They toyi-toyi in a circle singing struggle songs as passersby in the rush hour traffic look on. A few homeless kids come to them, asking for food and a warm blanket.
“We are here today, because we want to claim our land from the city,” Kolanisa says. “We want the city to stop evicting us. To stop demolishing our houses.”
“They have to listen to us, because if they don’t want to listen to us, then they are pressing our buttons so that we will go out onto the streets,” she says.
Kolanisa is the first applicant in a case against the city and law enforcement which is being heard on Thursday at the Western Cape High Court. Kolanisa and other Emsindweni residents are challenging the lawfulness of the evictions against them in March and April, which saw their homes demolished on at least three occasions without a court order, they say.
Residents from Kraaifontein, who were also violently evicted in March, gathered in solidarity with the Emsindweni residents on Wednesday outside the Civic Centre. The Kraaifontein evictees had a small triumph in March when the high court granted an interdict to halt further evictions against them.
The SJC had protested outside the civic centre less than a month ago, with a demand that the city stop illegal evictions. But the city — though having accepted a memorandum of demands in that protest — is yet to respond. On Wednesday, as the sky darkened and traffic began to dwindle, the city had still not sent a representative to meet with the occupiers just outside its building. A row of security guards were instead deployed to block the doors to the headquarters.
The protesters left before it got too dark. They do not know if their short occupation will make a difference, but they are resting their hopes on the court case. For Kolanisa, laying a mattress on a street in the city centre was a small symbol of the future she desires.
“I feel like I’m owning the space now – the one thing that I don’t have. There’s no-one here telling me to go. I’m owning a piece of land in town,” she says before she had to leave.