Snug in my sheepskin slippers under a fluffy knee-blanket, I began this newsletter acutely aware of the situation of the people I am writing about.
They were forcibly removed this week, in two mass evictions. Many more people may have suffered the same fate in different parts of South Africa, but their stories did not make the news.
Of the evictions I know about, one surfaced fleetingly on radio and 24-hour TV, before being submerged under the news cycle’s passing wave.
The other eviction dominated headlines and television broadcasts for days, trended on twitter, attracted the personal involvement of two national ministers, was declared a “national special project”, and is now the subject of a formal inquiry.
The first took place in Alexandra, Johannesburg. The second in Lwandle near Strand, in Cape Town.
The first was undertaken by the notorious “Red Ants” reportedly executing a court order; the second by the South African Police Service, instructed by the Sheriff, acting on an interdict, and supported by the Metro Police.
Both removals involved extreme human misery.
While the Alex evictions passed largely unnoticed, scores of commentators competed to be heard above the roar of condemnation that accompanied the Lwandle evictions. One of the few who noticed the anomaly was S’bu Zikode, president of South Africa’s largest national organisation of shack dwellers, Abahlali baseMjondolo, who described it as “strange” that the Lwandle eviction had received so much media attention, given that evictions happen “almost every day throughout the country”.
Referring to the sustained public outcry, Mr Zikode said: “We have to ask, why now? “One can only think it is politicking ahead of the local government elections (in 2016)”.
According to the brief news accounts, the Alex residents were evicted from abandoned factory sites and a vacant plot of land, the ownership of which remains unclear. About 400 people were evicted, reportedly for failure to pay rent.
As for the Lwandle evictions, I first learnt about them on Twitter, which focused, understandably, on the human misery, but gave little further information. Where was the site? Who owned it? Were the evictions authorised by a court? What contingencies had been made for the people? The Mayor’s office and other political leaders in the City were equally in the dark. None of us had been notified and every query elicited a referral somewhere else.
It took me 24 hours to glean the following information: The Lwandle site is owned by the South African National Road Agency Limited (SANRAL), a national government agency. This land falls within a road reserve that SANRAL needs for the implementation of the controversial E-Tolling project, scheduled to begin in six months (to which the City and the Province are vigorously opposed). People have been squatting on parts of the SANRAL land for years. Every time some are moved out, others move in. The City has been prevented, by law, from providing services on the site, except for the periphery, where they have been repeatedly vandalised. The City has regularly warned SANRAL to prevent further unlawful settlement on its land, to no avail. In January, as the E-tolling project drew closer, SANRAL obtained a court interdict to prevent any further “occupation” of the land. The interdict reportedly allowed the removal of any subsequently-erected structures without requiring an eviction order.
Despite this, the number of structures on the site continued to grow. As a result, on Monday 2 June, the Sheriff of the Court, supported by the SAPS and Metro Police, began the evictions.
This was the cue for the usual army of twitter trolls, unburdened by inconvenient facts, to blame both the Mayor and me personally for the unfolding human misery.
Attempts to establish responsibility and accountability were (as usual) dismissed as “bickering” while the winter storms escalated and SANRAL remained silent about the “alternative land” they were committed to provide.
At the height of the crisis a newspaper editorial put it succinctly: “the new SA is supposed to be a caring society that responds first to human need and then to legal niceties”.
The national Minister of Human Settlements, Lindiwe Sisulu, has had a great deal to say on the matter. But it is worth noting that the City of Cape Town is the only government agency that has actually done anything to meet the “human need”. The City has made community halls available to shelter the homeless and offered “enhanced” housing “starter kits” to rebuild structures as soon as SANRAL could identify an appropriate piece of land to house the evictees. (SANRAL reportedly today identified another road reserve to relocate the people, bounded by formal, bank-bonded housing, eliciting significant resistance from local residents. So the problem remains far from resolution).
As we await SANRAL’s attempt to resolve the mess, it is worth pondering some uncomfortable dilemmas: What are the long-term, unintended consequences of our natural impulse to prioritise human misery above “legal niceties”? With a housing waiting list of over 300,000 families (which grows daily as urbanisation escalates) how does one identify, purchase and service the necessary land, let alone manage a fair allocation process on a limited budget? Can we, as a society, sustain the expectation that the government must provide free housing for all who need it?
At a conservative estimate, in the Western Cape alone, providing the land, services and top structures for all those waiting to be accommodated would cost over R70-billion, almost double the budget of the entire Western Cape Government. Given that the demand so radically outstrips supply, it is even more crucial that we abide by fair rules of allocation.
It will undoubtedly create more problems than it solves to give preferential access to people who break the law, and may not even qualify for government housing. How will law-abiding citizens (many of whom have been on waiting lists for years) respond when they see others (often youngsters) leap-frog the land/housing queue? If we cannot maintain core principles of the rule of law, and equality before the law, what kind of arbitrary chaos will result, as the “law of the jungle” determines access to land, with immeasurable random acts of injustice? And what will the collapse of the rule of law mean for property ownership, for investment confidence, for economic growth and ultimately for jobs?
There will always be those who see “entrepreneurial opportunities” to make money from the chaos. As Business Day correctly noted: any situation in which “human misery” takes precedence over the law is “ripe for exploitation by individuals seeking to milk the system.”
This brings us to the nub of what happened in Lwandle this week.
During a fact-finding visit to the site, provincial officials encountered Andile Lili and Loyiso Nkhola, the leaders of the ANC’s “ungovernability” campaign (also known as the “Poo Protestors”) in charge of the situation. On further investigation, the officials found that Ses’Khona had an office on the site: a sturdy structure that had somehow escaped demolition. According to some evictees, before settling on the land they had been required to pay R25 each to Ses’Khona (disguised as a membership fee) in order to obtain a plot. The local organiser of Ses’Khona, Ms Vuyiswa Swentu, confirmed that the people had been required to pay a R25 “joining fee” to Ses’Khona. The money, she explained, was “a contribution towards legal costs” in the event of the anticipated evictions, arising out of the January interdict. According to Ms Swentu, all 840 people living there were members of Ses’Khona. When they paid R25 to join, they were all given a free Ses’Khona T-shirt, in ANC colours, emblazoned with Jacob Zuma’s photograph.
If Minister Sisulu is serious when she says “we do not tolerate, condone, nor encourage any illegal occupation of land in our country”, her starting point should be to confront the ANC’s Ses’Khona storm troopers.
Given the events of the past week, it is clear that Ses’Khona is merely continuing its “ungovernability” strategy in the run-up to the 2016 local government elections. They have openly called for land invasions and are now actually facilitating them by identifying “vulnerable land”. Then, in return for a “membership fee,” they encourage people who do not meet the housing allocation criteria (because they are too young or have already benefitted before) to move onto the land. They also get free Ses’Khona T-shirts to reinforce their loyalty to the organisation that then sets itself up as the vanguard of their struggle against eviction. Stripped of all the rhetoric, the truth is that Ses’Khona, in the most cynical way possible, is creating human misery (that we then prioritise over “legal niceties”), to advance their “ungovernability” agenda. And legitimate beneficiaries are side-lined once more. This inevitably fuels conflict and results in the collapse of any attempt at a fair allocation process.
If Minister Sisulu really means it when she states that “we do not tolerate, condone, nor encourage any illegal occupation of land in our country”, she would find out what role these ANC members are playing in facilitating precisely these actions.
Does this then imply that we should welcome the committee that the Minister unilaterally announced to investigate the situation surrounding the invasion and evictions on the SANRAL land?
Unfortunately, this committee does not pass the test of even the most rudimentary scrutiny.
It includes Ses’Khona’s own lawyer, Barnabas Xulu; ANC stalwart Annelize van Wyk who pre-judged the matter from the start in a twitter tirade blaming the City; Nonhle Dambuza, an ANC MP; and a former ANC MP, Mampe Ramotsomai, who was reportedly arrested after 15,000 mandrax tablets were seized from her home in 2001, before the case mysteriously vanished from public view. The committee is to be chaired by Advocate Denzil Potgieter, who has previously been chastised by a judge for conducting an “improper” inquiry set up by Marius Fransman against a DA council.
We have had enough experience of “political hit squads” to recognise one when we see one.
And if anyone thinks the Human Rights Commission, under well-known ANC deployed cadre, Lawrence Mushwana, would do a better job, they should just read this body’s opening salvo on the matter to disabuse themselves of any idea of HRC objectivity.
If Minister Sisulu was serious about establishing the truth, she would have set up an inquiry in consultation with the Mayor of Cape Town; and she would also inquire into evictions countrywide.
But that is not the purpose. The 2016 local election campaign has begun. That is the prism through which to understand the Lwandle occupations and evictions. Abahlali Basemjondolo hit the nail on the head.