The City of Cape Town claims people who are believed to have occupied shacks in the Empolweni settlement in Khayelitsha, Cape Town were recently evicted from backyards elsewhere.
This Easter weekend the city’s anti-land invasion unit tore down structures it says were uninhabited.
Law enforcement officers armed with riot shields and rubber bullets later clashed with people who protested the city’s actions.
But residents and civil society groups say the demolitions fly in the face of the national lockdown regulations to curb the spread of the coronavirus. About 100 people were affected by the operation.
The city’s mayoral committee member for human settlements, Malusi Booi, said the city had not ordered an eviction, but rather the demolition of unoccupied structures.
Booi said people who were in the process of occupying these structures claim to have been recently evicted from backyard dwellings elsewhere. “We have a court prohibiting the erection of any structure. We have a housing project earmarked for that land, so these people wanted to invade the land so that they can be prioritised, and that can’t be the case,” he added.
Booi said the city was not willing to negotiate with residents. But is willing to help iron out disputes with their former landlords who evicted them from their original backyard dwellings.
“When people are doing illegal activities, there is no negotiating. There are clear regulations around evictions. So, in the first case, they shouldn’t have left their points of origin where they were staying. The lockdown regulations are clear: evictions are prohibited. It’s those landlords who have contravened the current regulations by removing those people,” he said.
The city said it had no space to house residents temporarily, but would intervene in negotiations with their former landlords.
Moratorium on evictions
Meanwhile, the Ndifuna Ukwazi law centre has stepped in to assist the affected people, describing the city’s actions as unlawful.
Lawyer Mpho Raboeane said the organisation had written to the office of President Cyril Ramaphosa, informing him of the City of Cape Town’s actions and calling for him to intervene.
At the outset of the national lockdown, a moratorium on all evictions was put in place to ensure that people were not left outside exposed and at risk of contracting the coronavirus.
“We want to bring this to the attention of the national command council that municipalities are seemingly not heeding the moratorium on evictions that is supposed to be in effect during the lockdown period,” Raboeane said.
She has also dismissed the city’s claims the area was unoccupied, saying people had been living there since 2019.
“We have statements from some of the residents that they’ve been residing on that property from as far back as September; some have been there since January. The city’s narrative that these residents are opportunistic and that they are taking advantage of this lockdown period to invade is factually incorrect,” she added.
Lawyers for the residents say they also have not been furnished with the court order the city says it has in its possession.