City of Cape Town pushes for “zero tolerance” on land protests

After weeks of land occupation protests, Cape Town was unusually quiet on Tuesday morning. While communities remain frustrated in their demand for housing and land, the City of Cape Town has announced it is taking a “zero tolerance approach” to land occupations.

A priority committee is set to be established within the South African Police Service (SAPS) to deal with land protests after city officials requested more action to curb protest action.

In the past two weeks, land occupations have been organised in Vrygrond, Parkwood, Mitchell’s Plein, Gugulethu and Ocean View. In total, the city says it knows of 34 areas where land and housing protests have taken place.

In Vrygrond, land occupation began in April. By mid-May, the protest action had spread 8km north to the nearby community of Parkwood, where residents occupied a field in a similar demand for housing.

Since then, protests have been continuing simultaneously over the past two weeks in different areas of the Cape, with each community facing different challenges, but united in a call for land and adequate housing.

On Monday, as the City of Cape Town announced that it would be clamping down on land protests, a land occupation by residents in Woodlands in Mitchell’s Plein turned violent after police demolished 20 shacks. The residents retaliated into Monday night by throwing stones. Some stores were looted, but by Tuesday morning the area was quiet.

In Parkwood, after weeks of protests, residents had momentarily ceased any further action after talks began with the provincial government.

“There are discussions around council rental stock, discussions around looking at the available land and the backlog on the waiting list and to fast-track the upgrade of Parkwood. Identify open spaces and land around the Parkwood area, because we don’t want our people to be uprooted and moved from Parkwood,” said Pastor Paul Phillips, convenor of Voice of Parkwood, a faith-based community organisation that aims to improve the lives of residents.

But as government engages with protesting communities, it has already said that it believes the protests may be politically motivated or “hijacked”. Bonginkosi Madikizela, the MEC for human settlements in the Western Cape, has described the protests as “orchestrated” while the city’s mayoral committee member for safety and security JP Smith has said there is a “criminal and political intent” behind the land occupations.

“The city understands that there are communities with legitimate service delivery concerns and we continue to work very hard to deliver services within the limitations of our local government mandate and associated budget. It is however becoming more and more apparent that many of these legitimate issues are being hijacked by others with criminal and political intent. We also cannot allow attempts of manipulation to force the hand of government,” Smith said.

It was during a meeting with SAPS and the provincial cabinet last week, that city officials began considering more punitive measures for protesters after SAPS said that there had been an increase in protest action in the first four and a half months of 2018 compared to the same period of 2017.

“This represents a 73% increase in protest incidents that have grown progressively more violent,” Smith said.

According to Smith, there have been 115 people arrested and charged in relation to the protests for contravening section 18 of the Criminal Matters Amendment Act. Smith said that the arrestees should not be granted bail.

“We are pleased to learn that 115 suspects arrested during the wave of protests have been charged in terms of Section 18 of the Criminal Matters Amendment Act of 2015. The act makes provision for a person convicted of tampering with or damaging essential infrastructure to be imprisoned for a period not exceeding 30 years. SAPS has indicated that they are opposing bail — a position that the city strongly supports,” he said.

City officials are attempting to toe the line between recognising that protest action is a protected right for South Africans and their own plans to clampdown on land protests. For some residents in these protests, their demands for housing and the circumstances in which they live — such as backyard dwellings — are enough to justify land protests.

Dominique Booysen, the chairperson of the Parkwood Backyarders Association, has rubbished claims from Smith that any kind of third force is involved in the protests. The simultaneous nature of various protests has drawn suspicion from some Capetonians and outside observers, but Booysen is adamant the protests are borne from genuine concerns.

“This is not politics, this is a real crisis, a real need. I don’t want to argue or fight about it with anyone. I’m looking for my house. I have waited 17 years and that is enough,” he said.

Protests are expected to continue around the Cape. The police say seven arrests had been made in connection with the Woodlands protest on Monday night, but there is no confirmation yet of the total number of arrests made.

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Raeesa Pather
Raeesa Pather
Ra’eesa Pather is a Cape Town-based general news and features journalist.

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