The City of Cape Town could be heading to court to defend itself for taking action to curb land invasions, which included removing unoccupied dwellings, during the lockdown period.
According to lockdown regulations, municipalities and landlords may seek an eviction order from the high court, but will only be able to enforce the order once lockdown regulations change and permit them to do so.
The city has been accused of flouting the lockdown regulations by intimidating people and removing them from their homes.
In April, early into level 5 lockdown, several homes were torn down in the Empolweni informal settlement in Khayelitsha.
The city argued the homes were unoccupied and were recently built, and that there was a court interdict barring the building of any structures because the city had earmarked the land for an infrastructure development project. To the city, this meant its anti-land invasion unit could remove the structures.
The residents went to court, which ruled that the shacks were indeed occupied and that several families could continue to live on the land until the lockdown moratorium on evictions lapses.
Then weeks later the city’s law enforcement moved in to Hangberg in Hout Bay to remove what is said was unoccupied, newly-built structures. The operation led to raised tensions and residents set fire to a day-care centre used as a Covid-19 feeding scheme access point.
Last week, a much-circulated video on social-media, showed a naked man being tackled out of his house while it was being demolished. The man, Bulelani Qolani, claims he was washing at the time. The video received condemnation from the South African Human Rights Commission, nongovernmental organisations and opposition parties in the Cape Town metro municipality.
Four law enforcement officers were suspended pending an investigation into the incident.
The Legal Resources Centre (LRC) argues these are examples of the city enforcing evictions while South Africa is still in lockdown.
The LRC’s Zimkhitha Mhlahlo said it wants a declaratory order from the courts for a permanent stay on evictions until lockdown is over.
“Eviction orders that have been issued by the courts before the lockdown have been put under moratorium. We are asking the court to give us an order so that the city stops doing what it is doing. We want the possessions and material of people that were confiscated returned. These people have no other place to go, they consider it there home,” said Mhlahlo.
“These demolitions have been inhuman and dehumanise people. It contravenes these people’s constitutional right to dignity. It also puts their health and safety and risk during this period of Covid-19.”
Across the city in the suburb of Woodstock, occupants of a former hospital say they live in fear of eviction and intimidation. Last weekend, several law enforcement officials showed up at what’s been renamed Cissie Gool House.
Residents said law enforcement later explained they wanted to put a mobile office on the premises. Bevil Lucas, a house leader at Cissie Gool, which has been occupied by more than 300 families in a part protest, part long-term occupation, described it as an act of intimidation by the law enforcement officials.
“If we look at what happened in Khayelitsha, it begs the question: How come the city council hates its citizens so much that it has to employ these barbaric tactics towards its own people? We are being intimidated. The tactics used by the city’s law enforcement is what was used by the old apartheid police — low-intensity conflict. And this is happening,” he said.
But the City of Cape Town said it had not conducted any evictions during the lockdown.
Regarding the Khayelitsha incident last week, the city maintains the structures were unoccupied and that it was enforcing a high court order to remove any illegally erected structures on the land.
“The anti-land Invasion unit has been conducting near-daily anti-land invasion operations at the site. Only 49 structures have been temporarily allowed to remain by the high court. This is monitored on an ongoing basis. To date, no evictions have taken place on the site, only anti-land invasion operations,” mayoral committee member for human settlements, councillor Malusi Booi, said in a statement.
On the independent investigation into the treatment of Bulelani Qolani, the city has appointed a law firm, Fairbridges Attorneys, to look into the circumstances and promised that a report would be speedily produced.
In a letter to the city, the LRC questions the integrity of the investigation, drawing connections to historic links between the City of Cape Town and the law firm.
“It is fair cause that the city has used Fairbridges attorneys in several eviction cases in the past,” the LRC said. “The city has also appointed Fairbridges as their attorneys to respond to our letters of request to stop all evictions … There is, therefore, a direct conflict of interest for Fairbridges to act as ‘independent investigators’.”
In response, the city said that Fairbridges had already begun its investigative work “to ensure the findings are above reproach, given the public interest in the matter”.
The city said it has presented video footage not in the public domain allegedly showing Qolani fully clothed.
“Video footage filmed by law enforcement officials contains new perspectives not visible in the public viral video. This includes footage showing Mr Qolani clothed and standing outside during the operation to remove five illegal structures on Wednesday, 1 July 2020. Mr Qolani looks directly into the camera, as law enforcement officials are heard dismantling illegal structures. This indicates Mr Qolani was not bathing as claimed,” the city said.
This follows claims by Cape Town mayor Dan Plato that the incident was staged.
“Mr Qolani could not possibly have been living there as he claims, given that law enforcement has been conducting near-daily anti-land invasion operations at the site,” Booi said.
The city further said that ongoing land invasions in Empolweni is jeopardising a R162-million water pipeline project meant to benefit more than 11 000 residents in Khayelitsha.