Category Archives: Daniel Bailey

Witness editorial: Giving a Voice

Giving a voice

A crucial task of the media in a democratic society is to publicise the plight of ordinary citizens faced with the unreasonable exercise of power, whether by government or business. This week’s story in The Witness putting the other side of the saga involving the demolition in Pietermaritzburg of Akoo’s Flats and a neighbouring house is a case in point.

The evicted tenants emphasised that while they might be poor, they are not stupid. They are also capable of reading the newspaper and, indeed, contributing to it. As a result, a more rounded and complete picture of events has now been offered. It is clear that at least some of the occupants of the two buildings were subjected to a forced removal that belonged more to the apartheid era than to a democracy and had little respect for people’s human rights and dignity.

Defenders of media freedom are sometimes regarded with exasperation. The press is often criticised for its conduct, sometimes with justification, but it has earned the description of the fourth estate for good reasons. Without it, people would lose a significant part of their defence against the unilateral actions of the powerful and the rich. This may be too late for the inhabitants of Akoo’s Flats, but coverage of their experience could prevent a repetition.

In the hierarchy of rights, freedom of information is generally relegated to a third tier behind civil, political and socio-economic matters. But without it, the people will never govern and democracy will remain an unfulfilled hope.

Published: 15 June 2007

Original Witness article

Stop the lies and the bullying’
•Tue, 12 Jun 2007

Former residents of a recently demolished city building claim unfair treatment by the owner

THE Witness of May 9 carried an article about the “notorious city building Akoo’s Flats” being demolished. Everyone whose voice was listened to in that article praised the new owner of the building, the “developer” Andrew Barnes, for getting rid of a “filthy, structurally unsound building” that was an “eyesore. It was a wreck.”

Two days later, Daniel Bailey, who works for the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE), had a letter published in The Witness asking about the evicted residents — the people who were invisible in the original Witness story.

In Bailey’s letter he pointed out that “the residents of the flats lived there not because they wanted too (who would want to live in such dangerous conditions?) but because it was all they could afford. Where in our city is there affordable accommodation for poor people
deriving a livelihood in the CBD? There is none.”

Demolition permit

The ward councillor, Peter Green, reacted to this letter straight away, defending the demolitions and evictions.

Green wrote: “Perceptions are sometimes more real than the truth, but anyone who wants to make a statement about a hearsay matter should verify the information or rumour before taking action. A demolition permit was issued by municipal officials in terms of safety and health issues. All the residents from Akoo’s Flats were satisfactorily
relocated with the assistance of the developer.

“As the ward councillor, I facilitated several meetings with the residents and the developer to achieve a proverbial win-win outcome for everyone concerned”.

The first part of Green’s letter is really a polite way of accusing Bailey of lying — “Perceptions are sometimes more real than the truth, but anyone who wants to make a statement about a hearsay matter should verify the information or rumour before taking action”.

Well, we are the people who were living in the rooms of the house next to the flats — it was called the White House — that was demolished in the same operation. This house was also owned by Akoo and was sold to Barnes. Like the flats, this house also gave shelter to poor people in the city.

We are very angry about the lying. However, the lies are not coming from Bailey. The lying is being done by the business people and the councillors.

Here is the truth about what happened to us. In late November last year, Andrew Barnes was introduced to us as the new owner of the buildings. About a month later, a man called Sam, who works for Barnes, came to announce that he no longer wanted anyone to live there and that he was giving us one month to get out.

He said Barnes didn’t need our rent and he was already paying for water which was leaking everywhere and he was going to shut the water off.

Still during December, Sam came with a letter, demanding everyone sign it, stipulating when they were going to leave. Only one of us was there when he came that time and so she refused to sign the letter. It was just before the holiday period and the residents pleaded not be kicked out at such a time.

Barnes had threatened to bring machines to knock the whole place down and so we were very scared that we would have no place to stay, and we worried about our belongings that were there. That is why we all returned early on December 27 and 28.

We must state very clearly that in all this time no one ever spoke to us about alternative accommodation at all. Instead, the next thing that happened was that workers arrived to destroy our home.

First they demolished the old swimming pool that was there and then they started on the outbuildings. They were very threatening and shouted at us women, “Hamba ’bafazi”. Barnes himself went from room to room, kicking the doors down, calling for the people who were living there.

One of the people living there is a Malawian. Maybe because he is a foreigner whose rights are not respected, he was the most scared by this intimidation and he ran away first. But all of us were affected badly.

Under these conditions, when the owner of your house is there kicking down the doors and smashing down the buildings, it is not really possible to continue to live there.

What made it even more difficult was that Barnes told people that they could come and take the door frames and the windows away — so of course these all went very quickly, which made it impossible to live there.

Abused and intimidated

We are very angry. We were abused and our children were abused. We first found out what was happening when my young child come running and crying to where I was working nearby to tell me about an umlungu who was breaking down the doors and shouting.

Even when we talk about this now, we cry again. That little girl of mine is still badly affected. Every time she sees a white man, in a car or a van driving near to us, she cries and hides in fear.

What has happened is not right at all. Maybe if someone is the owner of a building and he or she wants to take it, then they can do that. But surely they can do it in a nice way? It is not necessary to abuse
and initimidate people.

It is a hard life for the poor. We are not just sitting around with lots of spare time doing nothing so that we can easily go and find alternative accommodation near to the city where we can make some sort of a living.

Some of us who were at Akoo’s and the White House have had to go back to family homes far away from jobs and schools. Others have found places to rent for a short time in the shacks near the city.

To rent a room or a flat in the city is too expensive for the people — it costs something like R1 000. So really, there are no alternatives for us.

Green says that residents were “satisfactorily relocated with the assistance of the developer”. He says that “as the ward councillor, I facilitated several meetings with the residents and the developer to achieve a proverbial win-win outcome for everyone concerned”.

Definitely, for us from the White House, there were no meetings to talk with us about the evictions; there were no discussions about relocation; and maybe there was a win for the councillor and a win for the developer, but we have lost a lot and we have received no compensation, no assistance and no apology.

We know that certainly some of the people in Akoo’s Flats were given money by Barnes to go away.

Afterwards we heard him telling someone that the people in the White House — that is us — went voluntarily but the people in the block of flats were difficult and he [Barnes] had to pay them money for them to leave.

Well, firstly it is not true that we went on our own — we were forced out. And secondly, bribing some people is not the same as being fair and just.

We think that Barnes has made a big mistake. He forgets that, just because we are poor, we are not stupid. We have seen the newspaper article and we have seen Councillor Green’s letter lying on behalf of Barnes.

Rights ignored

We want our story to be known now as well. We have met with Bailey who wrote that letter and now we are sure that our rights have been ignored and that what was done to us was illegal.

Some of us have lived in Akoo’s buildings for eight years and we have rights under the law.

The only documents we got were letters from Barnes’s private company but there was no proper eviction order granted by a court of law; there was no sheriff there when our things were removed; no suitable alternative accommodation was discussed or offered.

The next time Barnes wants to talk to us, he can talk to our lawyers.

• This statement has the support of the Comboni Missionary Community of the Pietermaritzburg Catholic Church.

Councillor Peter Green responds:

I have not met any of the residents of the “White House” and did not know of the existence of the “White House” before seeing the above letter.

I initially responded to a request for help from the residents in Akoo’s Building and met with them several times, with and without the developer, before the building was demolished.

My information is that these residents were relocated, after the negotiations which I facilitated, to the mutual satisfaction of the residents and the developer.

If there are now other people who feel that they have been unfairly treated or mistreated in any way I will be willing to try to assist them to address their problems.

I will be happy to meet with the former residents of the “White House”, the Comboni Missionary Community and Daniel Bailey if there are issues that they feel still need to be addressed.

My office is on the fifth floor, Gallwey, Gallwey Lane and my contact numbers are 033 342 7692 or 082 774 5477.

• Developer Andrew Barnes was contacted for comment but failed to respond.

Published: 12 June 2007