JOHANNESBURG, 13 April 2007 (IRIN) – Tens of thousands of South Africa’s poorest people face eviction from inner-city suburbs across the country ahead of the 2010 World Cup football.
The country’s Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) recently allowed Johannesburg City, which has two world-cup stadiums, to evict 300 squatters from inner-city buildings classified as unsafe by the Johannesburg municipality.
Johannesburg has evicted thousands of the country’s poorest people from 125 buildings since the 2001 launch of its urban renewal plan for 235 buildings on its list of ‘bad buildings’, mainly hotel and apartment block construction and refurbishment.
The eviction process was forced to cease after a High Court decision in favour of the squatters in March 2006, when their legal team successfully argued that eviction would make their clients homeless because there was no clear strategy to provide them with adequate alternate accommodation. However, the city council appealed the High Court decision.
Last month, Appeals Judge Louis Harms ruled that the city’s notice for the squatters to vacate the derelict apartment block and residential buildings in the inner-city suburb of Berea, on the grounds of fire and health hazards, to be neither unconstitutional nor otherwise unlawful.
“Moreover, the obligation of the occupiers to comply with that order is not dependent upon their being provided with alternative accommodation, even if the effect of complying with the order will be that they are left without access to adequate housing,” the judgment read. The SCA also ordered the city to offer those evicted relocation to a temporary settlement area.
Stuart Wilson of the Centre for Applied Legal Studies at Johannesburg’s Witwatersrand University said there were concerns that the judgment did not go far enough in protecting the occupiers of so-called ‘bad buildings’ in inner-city Johannesburg from the arbitrary exercise of state power.
“The court record shows that the inner-city poor are routinely marginalised by the City of Johannesburg and denied an adequate hearing by the city’s officials before decisions to evict are taken. The judgment appears to condone this practice, and effectively leaves it to the city to decide if and when the occupiers of bad buildings should be consulted prior to future eviction applications,” he commented.
“I do not understand how the SCA can require alternative shelter to be provided to the most desperate, but not require that residents of all bad buildings be consulted in order to find out whether or not they are desperate,” Wilson added.
Evictions have resumed since the ruling: more than 100 refugees and asylum seekers were evicted on 28 March from the Coronia Gardens building in Johannesburg’s city centre, where they had lived for years, according to the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR.
Setting a precedent
Human rights activists have warned that the ruling, which may be appealed to the constitutional court, paves the way for similar evictions across the country’s 10 world cup cities, where many central business districts have fallen into disrepair since the demise of apartheid.
”To forcibly remove us from our homes and send us out of the city is like the racial segregation the apartheid regime used against us”
Prior to 1994, South Africa’s various population groups lived in segregated areas, with the country’s then affluent inner-city suburbs mainly occupied by whites.
After racial segregation was done away with in post-apartheid South Africa, poor blacks migrated to the cities in search of employment, where inner-city landlords overcrowded their properties as white people vacated the inner city and moved to the suburbs. Buildings fell into disrepair and basic facilities like electricity and water were disconnected when the accounts were not paid.
A key component of Johannesburg’s ambitious redevelopment programme is the clearance of these ‘bad’ buildings, which are often perceived to be hotbeds of crime.
According to the council’s Inner City Regeneration Strategy, the elimination of such socioeconomic “sinkholes” will contribute to improved property values, raise private-sector investment and help to transform Johannesburg into an “African World Class City”.
To kick-start inner-city regeneration, the council has introduced projects such as the Better Buildings Programme, which allows redevelopers to take over buildings that have run up huge utility bills, in exchange for a rates rebate. However, many of these programmes have stagnated since the legal battle began.
The council has argued that it has taken the city’s poor into consideration with transitional housing initiatives in its inner-city regeneration strategy. With the help of Metro Evangelical Services and the Johannesburg Trust for the Homeless, the once dilapidated Europa Hotel in the city centre was recently refurbished and turned into a low-cost communal housing project.
Human rights violations
The efforts to transform Johannesburg have also caught the attention of the Geneva-based nongovernmental organisation, the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE).
After a survey of the inner city, COHRE estimated that up to 26,000 squatters living in the inner city are suffering widespread human rights violations as a result of the city’s redevelopment plan.
“Although some of the buildings in question are indeed ‘unhealthy’, and may serve as bases for criminals, our research clearly shows that the majority of those who live in such buildings are ordinary poor people, trying to earn a living on the streets of Johannesburg,” said COHRE’s Jean du Plessis.
“These poor people choose to live in urban centres because they are located close to formal job opportunities or points of entry into the informal economy. They are themselves very often the victims of crime, unprotected by an under-resourced police force, rather than the criminals they are often made out to be. In the name of clearing these depressed areas, they are being forcibly evicted without any credible alternative housing or tenure options.”
Photo: Johannesburg Municipality
The Johannesburg City Council launched its plans to revive the inner city in 2001.
Nelson Khethani, 55, is a sweet and fruit street vendor from the Eastern Cape, one of South Africa’s poorest provinces. “The only way I can make a profit is if I live in the city. It costs R8.50 [US$1.18] for transport a day if I were to live outside the city, and I only make between R400 [about $56] and R600 [$83] per month,” he said.
“To forcibly remove us from our homes and send us out of the city is like the racial segregation the apartheid regime used against us. We are not criminals – you can walk in here at 12 midnight and nothing will happen to you,” he said emphatically. “We have a building committee that controls who moves in and out, and we clean the building from top to bottom very Sunday ourselves.”
Khethani is one of 300 squatters facing eviction from the building since the SCA decision. “The reason this building fell into disrepair is the fault of the council, who have abandoned it. We don’t want a free ride but the council won’t even meet us halfway. They could give us an apartment … and we would pay rent in return.”