The wave of shack demolitions in communities around Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban during the Covid-19 lockdown, despite the national moratorium on evictions during the national disaster, appears to have been halted — at least for now.
Although authorities in all three cities have undertaken to abide by the moratorium announced by the national government, they have warned that they will continue to act against land invasions and demolish shacks built during the lockdown.
On Tuesday, Gauteng co-operative governance MEC Lebogang Maile said he would be meeting with the province’s mayors to discuss a response to land invasions during the Covid-19 pandemic following two weeks of demolitions in Lawley Extension in Johannesburg.
Around 190 shacks and several houses were demolished in Lawley, with residents claiming their dwellings had been built long before the lockdown took effect on March 26.
Maile and Johannesburg mayor Geoff Makhubo both undertook to abide by the moratorium, but said that they would continue to act to stop land invasions.
Maile said land was being sold in the area by a “very organised”’ syndicate which had been taking
advantage of the lockdown to “manipulate” people into occupying land illegally. “We are not heartless. No-one is going to be evicted, but no-one is going to be allowed to occupy land illegally in the name of Covid-19.”
Maile also said that a number of existing eviction orders secured by the City and the province before the lockdown was declared would not be executed until after it was lifted.
“Post Covid-19, we will implement the law. We have court orders from before the lockdown, which must be implemented, but we can’t implement them [now],” he said.
In Durban, shacks at the Eku-phumleni settlement in Mariannhill and Azania in Cato Manor were demolished in a series of operations which began on the first day of lockdown by security company Calvin and Family, backed by Metro Police and the South African Police Service.
The demolitions, during which several residents of both settlements were injured, took place despite an appeal by shack residents movement Abahlali base Mjondolo to the eThekwini municipality to halt evictions and demolitions during lockdown.
Although residents of the two areas said they had been living there under threat of eviction since February 2019, the City said it had demolished shacks which were built after the lockdown was declared and which were not occupied.
Abahlali took the City to the Durban High Court but failed. The court accepted the city’s version that it had demolished shacks which were not yet occupied and were still being built as part of a land invasion and dismissed the application to interdict the municipality.
eThekwini mayor Mxolisi Kaunda said the City would continue to demolish any new dwellings. “It is unfortunate that while we are working tirelessly to flatten the curve of this scourge, some groupings in our society capitalise on this challenge facing the country to break the law. As this sphere of government, we will unwaveringly clampdown on any unlawful conduct including land invasion,” Kaunda said.
“We still maintain that shacks that were demolished recently, were unoccupied, some of which were partially built and we acted within the ambit of the law,” Kaunda said. “I am happy that even our courts have vindicated us.”
Abahlali spokesperson Mqapheli Bonono said that municipalities were now justifying the eviction of shack communities by claiming that dwellings were new and the result of ongoing land invasions. “The reality is that people have been living on that land since February last year and rebuilding their shacks after each eviction. A new shack does not indicate a new resident.”
“The municipalities in Cape Town and Johannesburg have also justified recent evictions by claiming that the homes that were destroyed were not occupied,” Bonono said.
In Cape Town, 49 families from eMpolweni in Khayelitsha won a high court order compelling the City to allow them to rebuild their shacks, which it demolished over Easter.
The court also ordered the municipality to return building materials it had confiscated from the residents, who had been sleeping in the open after their homes were destroyed.
South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) spokesperson Gushwell Brooks said they had visited Lawley Extensions 4 and 5 on Monday and Tuesday to get a first-hand account of what had happened from residents.
They then met Johannesburg mayor Geoff Makhubo and acting Johannesburg Metro Police Department head Sipho Dlepu and secured an agreement to halt the demolitions of shacks and brick and mortar houses in the area, which had been earmarked by the City for the development of a new township. Brooks said they planned to meet Makhubo on Thursday to find “amicable and implementable solutions”.
Brooks said while the SAHRC viewed the land occupations as symptomatic of the need for housing and the slow progress of land reform, it took a strong stand against land grabs as they interfered with plans by municipalities to provide housing. “The commission calls on communities to observe the lockdown regulations and to desist from erecting structures without permission.”