Bay State Banner: South Africans protest mass eviction order in court

South Africans protest mass eviction order in court

by Toussaint Losier

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Dancing the toyi-toyi, stomping their feet and singing protest songs, more than 100 residents of the informal Joe Slovo settlement in Cape Town and their supporters rallied outside of South Africa’s Constitutional Court last month in support of the community’s right to adequate housing.

Nearly all had traveled 28 hours by train to attend the hearing concerning the future of their community.

Inside the courtroom, their lawyers called upon the court’s nine judges to overturn a controversial eviction order that would have seen all residents of the settlement forcibly removed from the township of Langa, where many have been living for more than 15 years.

Issued by Cape Judge President John Hlophe five months ago, the court order declared all 6,000 families in Joe Slovo to be unlawful occupants of a valuable strip of city land and ordered the community’s relocation to make way for the completion of Phases 2 and 3 of the N2 Gateway, a pilot housing project.

At the heart of the Joe Slovo residents’ case was the widespread belief that if residents moved voluntarily, they had no guarantee that authorities would allow them to return to the still-limited number of houses now planned for construction.

Their skepticism stems from a similar situation in January 2005, after a shack fire burned down portions of Joe Slovo. Hundreds voluntarily relocated to Delft for what authorities promised was only a temporary period until the project’s first phase was completed.

But of 705 former residents, only one was given the opportunity to return to the new housing.

Residents also argued that housing developer Thubelisha Homes and government officials had failed to adequately include their input in the planning of the project or ensure that enough low-income housing would be built to accommodate all residents. After repeated requests failed to secure a meeting with top government officials, Joe Slovo residents made nationwide news by carrying out a daylong blockade of the vital N2 highway in September 2007.

Prior to the trial, Hlophe himself had come under public criticism following a formal complaint from the Constitutional Court, alleging that he sought to influence two judges on behalf of former South African Deputy President and current African National Congress President Jacob Zuma.

In addition to sparring with Hlophe, the court had also ruled against Zuma, finding that documents seized in police raids could be used as evidence against him in his forthcoming trial on corruption and racketeering charges.

In response to Hlophe’s ruling, residents chose to bypass the Supreme Court of Appeals and applied for a hearing before the Constitutional Court. Established in 1994 through the country’s first democratic constitution, the court is the highest in the land and is tasked with upholding South Africa’s constitution, particularly its provisions regarding justice, equity, and the protection of human rights.

Challenging their appeal were heads of national, provincial and local government, as well as Thubelisha Homes, the private company managing the N2 Gateway project. These parties all argued that residents’ refusal to move to temporary relocation areas (TRAs) in Delft had blocked the project’s completion for more than two years.

During the hearing, judges Zac Yacoob and Kate O’Regan questioned the residents’ lawyers, Geoff Budlender and Pete Hathorn, asking on what grounds did the community have a legitimate expectation that it could occupy the Joe Slovo site indefinitely.

O’Regan also expressed concern over Hlophe’s eviction order for not laying out the process of relocation.

“I couldn’t imagine an order for eviction that didn’t set out where and how the respondents would be accommodated,” she said.

Chief Justice Pius Langa called the court’s attention to the TRAs’ myriad problems, from their distance from places of employment and schools to the lack of electricity and the area’s higher crime rate.

Admitted as a friend of the court, the lawyer from the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions, an international nonprofit advocacy organization, went even further, describing the TRAs as “woefully inadequate” and “a barren wasteland.”

Rather than making a ruling, the court reserved judgment, with several judges repeatedly encouraging lawyers for both sides to come to a negotiated settlement. Yacoob even instructed the parties to draw up their own court order within the next week that would describe how the court should endeavor both to meet the needs of Joe Slovo residents and ensure the project’s completion.

Residents expressed hope that their grievances related to the top-down planning of the Gateway project had been heard by the court.

“We’ve been asking them to change the plans because we need RDP houses, and their plan is not to change what they want,” said Joe Slovo Task Team coordinator Mzwanele Zulu.

“RDP” stands for “Reconstruction and Development Property,” an approach to creating low-cost housing for poor individuals that includes the purchase and rehabilitation of dilapidated structures into living spaces that include little more than bare necessities. RDP housing typically consists of one bedroom, a living room, a kitchen and a toilet.

Zulu called the project leaders’ unwillingness to include RDP houses in the planning “unacceptable” and “a form of autocracy.”

“If they were more democratic, they would have allowed people to raise their views and their concerns about the future of their lives,” said Zulu. “They have been promising people to build houses for them there, but now they want to make money … That is the main problem we are facing. They aren’t aiming at improving the lives of the poor.”

After the hearing, residents marched through the streets of Johannesburg under the banner of the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign, a social movement that had brought over two dozen evicted Delft residents to attend the hearing in solidarity.

By nightfall, the Cape Town delegation had returned to the Central Methodist Church, a five-story building that was already accommodating more than 5,000 homeless Africans, many of whom had been displaced by a wave of attacks against foreigners in May that left about 70 dead and hundreds injured.

Bishop Paul Verryn welcomed Joe Slovo residents, allowing them to stay in the church’s sanctuary and providing them with meals. During his welcome, the bishop likened the South African government’s efforts to the forced removals carried out by the state during the apartheid era.