By Martin Legassick 21/5/2009
For more pictures including the ongoing camping by residents, click here.
On Tuesday 19th backyarders in Macassar, desperate for homes, built shacks on municipal land on a field adjoining the N2 – and were illegally evicted by Cape Town’s DA Helen-Zille-inspired Anti-Land Invasion unit, together with SAPS and Metro Police. Their building materials were confiscated and taken off in a truck. In the process four people (including a 2-year old child) were unnecessarily wounded by police rubber bullets, four people (including myself) were unnecessarily taken into custody and three of these wrongfully charged with public violence.
On Wednesday evening a solution to the situation appeared to have been reached. The Macassar SAPS superintendent, Princess Benjamin, brokered negotiations between representatives of the occupiers and the local ID councillor, John Heuvel. At 8pm the representatives returned to open land next to the field, to which the homeless occupiers had removed their furniture and slept the previous night, and were now sitting around fires. The representatives announced that the councillor had agreed the people could occupy a piece of land nearby and that they should build shacks there immediately. The councilor promised that the mayor, Dan Plato, would come at 9 the following morning to endorse this. The people rushed to begin, and as they did so, some ten police cars guarding the field that had been occupied, left it.
However the next morning (Thursday) Dan Plato did not turn up. Instead Metro Police appeared and supervised the renewed destruction of the structures. More building materials were confiscated. What caused this disgraceful abandonment of an agreement between the people and the ward councilor? According to the Metro Police boss, “a ward councilor cannot allocate land, but only the council. I work for the mayor. That is why I countermanded the agreement.” In other words, the anti-poor policies of the Democratic Alliance is what put a spanner in the works.
Macassar, a formerly ‘coloured’ area, is now bursting at the seams with overcrowded houses, occupied by both coloured and African families (and even a few whites). Both coloureds and Africans participated in the occupation. Macassar is one part of Cape Town’s housing crisis, where there is a backlog of some 400,000 homes, increasing by some 20,000 a year, but with a maximum of 8, 000 houses a year being built. Backyarders in Macassar pay exorbitant rents to the house-owners of some R300-R500 a months, and that is why they want decent homes of their own.
Before the elections, backyarders in Macassar had approached mayor Helen Zille several times with letters and SMSes. She eventually said she would get Dan Plato to visit them to hear their grievances. He never came. After the elections people decided they would have to go it on their own. They identified a piece of vacant land and spent three days cleaning it in preparation for a picnic and sports event on Saturday 16th, but this was wiped out by the first of the Cape’s winter storms.
So on the night of Monday 18th they gathered at 6pm to build, and succeeded through the night in erecting a number of complete shacks; many others brought their furniture to put on their intended shack sites. The DA-ordered eviction on Tuesday morning was illegal under the Prevention of Illegal Eviction from, and Unlawful Occupation of, Land Act of 1998 (PI), which states that any built structures require a court order before people are evicted from them. People put up the shacks again, but they were torn down again and this time the materials were confiscated.
The initial response of the community was to try to occupy the adjacent N2, which the police prevented. People returned to the road next to the field they had occupied and marched up and down, singing and toyi-toying. The police became very restless and tried to block the marches by parking police cars three abreast in the road but people just marched through without touching the cars.
I was there taking pictures of all this. Someone in plain clothes who it later turned out was a Crime Intelligence Unit photographer started trying to take pictures of me, perhaps because I was the only white there, sticking out like a milk bottle. I tried to dodge him but he persisted. An SAPS inspector in plain clothes came and stood right next to me, trying to intimidate me. When I swore back at him he became incensed and grabbed me, soon supported by other police officers. People were disturbed and started to complain and move in my direction. Very fast a ring of police was around me, with their shotguns pointing outwards. I was told to move quietly towards a police van and as I reached it, the police opened fire. In the hail of rubber bullets four people (including a two-year old child) were wounded.
Soon three other people were escorted to the police van. None of them were in the slightest involved. One had been riding past on a bicycle and dropped to the ground when he heard the fire. Another fell over at the fire, and happened to touch a policeman. The third had been pepper-gassed and had handcuffs on but said he had done nothing. The following morning they appeared in Somerset West Court, were released with no bail, but charged with “public violence”.
All this, apparently precipitated by the inspector grabbing me unnecessarily, was quite needless.
Later I told the inspector I was angry because the police were supporting an illegal eviction under the PIE Act. He replied “yes, you are right, it was illegal. But we are national police and here we were instructed by the (DA) provincial and local government.” Yet last week I was at a meeting in the same field when two people from the Anti-Land-Invasion Unit came and told us the meeting was illegal and tried to call the SAPS to disperse it. An SAPS van turned up, but left after five minutes. The SAPS need not respond to demands from provincial or municipal authorities if they believe those demands are illegal.
Poor people do not have the resources to call lawyers within minutes to place interdicts against police actions. That is the reason that the police get away with illegality.
Conditions of service in the police force are of course very bad. The inspector also told me he had been shot in the neck on duty and would be in a wheelchair in two months because of problems in his vertebrae. “I am afraid to sneeze”, he said. Why on earth them was he compelled to take charge of police in the delicate situation of a land occupation.
Significantly, however, it was the SAPS superintendent who brokered the negotiations (which failed) and it was Metro Police who carried out the evictions on Thursday morning.
Now the responsibility for denying these homeless people land on which to build shacks rests with the DA-controlled council. Plato has recently claimed he intends to increase house-building in Cape Town from 8000 to 20-25,000 a year. This would, he claimed, allow the backlog to be ended in less than 20 years. How he expects to do this in these times of recession is anybody’s guess. But even if he could manage it, given that the backlog increases by 18-20,000 a year, on his figures for house-building it would take something like 100 years to end it!
If house-building cannot solve the ever-increasing backlog the pressures will become too great. If the DA’s “no tolerance of land occupations” were rigidly enforced (as they are trying to do) it will massively increase overcrowding of houses – and hence, most likely, abuse of women and children, drug abuse, and crime (all of which the DA claims to be against). If housing cannot be provided immediately for all, people must be allowed to find land on which to build shacks, whether that land is municipal, state, provincial or even private. The officials of the Anti-Land-Invasion-Unit behave very arrogantly and inflexibly. Repression is no answer to the housing crisis, and the Unit should be immediately disbanded.
Zille has criticized the ANC’s N2 Gateway housing project for favouring an elite. Instead she promotes the old apartheid site-and-service schemes, yet she wants to repress people building housing for themselves! This is despite the DA ideology of entrepreneurship and the free market! What a contradiction!
The ID ward councilor John Heuvel says he opposes land occupations because people who carry them out “gain the impression they should get the first option for housing.” Of course this is nonsense. People in shacks want houses, but they are prepared to accept waiting lists – provided those waiting lists are fair and transparent. In fact many involved in the Macassar occupation have been waiting twenty or thirty years for houses. But to ensure fairness and transparency it is incumbent on the Cape Town council to publish its waiting list, with clear indication of the dates on which people first applied for housing.
In Macassar, as elsewhere in the Western Cape, big mistrust in political parties is developing, despite the recent elections. People believe politicians only want their votes to enjoy the privileges of office, and that they are universally corrupt.
The housing crisis in the Western Cape and nationally continues. It is, in fact, an emergency situation. But no political party has answers to it. None of them is prepared to put the 4-8 million unemployed to work to build mass housing under the aegis of the state. So the rich continue to get housed and the poor suffer overcrowding, as well as police violence and deprivation of property when they try to assert their rights.