eThekwini evictions continue despite moratorium

The hardships imposed by the Covid-19 lockdown have been exacerbated for a group of shack dwellers in Durban whose homes have been demolished.

The KwaZulu-Natal Department of Human Settlements and Public Works is investigating the demolishing of shack dwellings in Ekuphumeleleni in Durban, which has left several families without shelter.

The residents say guards from a private security company originally demolished a number of shacks on 18 March 2020, then again this past weekend, and they returned on 31 March to demolish another three. At the Azania shack settlement in Cato Manor, about 15 homes were destroyed. 

According to a 33-year-old resident of Ekuphumeleleni, Siphesihle Yaka, he escaped serious injury over the weekend during an altercation with the security guards. Recounting what happened, the unemployed father of two said a small group of guards told residents that they had been occupying the land in Shallcross illegally since 2019.

“When they arrived I was gardening,” said Yaka. “They demolished my shack and then I went to help my neighbour to remove his belongings from his home.” 

Yaka said he was carrying a spade he had been using in the garden when a security guard approached him. 

“He told me to give him the spade and there was a tug of war over it, and then another man hit me with an axe on my arm. While looking at the blood oozing out of my arm, I asked the man why he hit me because I was not fighting.

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“While I was talking, another man hit me with a pickaxe on the head. Luckily I have dreadlocks on my head. They told me at the hospital that it was my dreadlocks that saved me from a severe injury.”

Yaka said he first went to a local clinic, which referred him to the RK Khan Hospital in Chatsworth for treatment.

“What is worse is that they did this without producing any legal document. On 18 March, shots were fired. There are small children and elderly people living here. Some people got hurt,” he said.

Nowhere else to go

Yaka’s neighbour, Lungisile Mdlalose, was out shopping for groceries for the 21-day nationwide lockdown when the evictions took place. The 37-year-old mother, who shares her shack with her four children and has been living there for a month, said when she returned it had already been flattened.

“They demolished the shack with everything inside.”

Mdlalose said it confused her because the government had asked citizens to practise social distancing and stay at home during the lockdown.

“It is not the first time they are coming to evict us. The last time they came, they asked me if I knew that we were occupying the land illegally, and we admitted that we were aware of that. I told them that I had nowhere to go and that we survive off my children’s social grants.”

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Mdlalose said she had used money from the same grants to buy the corrugated iron sheets with which the shack was built. 

“If they come back, there is nothing we can do. We have nowhere else to go. We will just rebuild what they have destroyed. Even with this social distancing that the government is wanting us to do, how are you supposed to do that sharing one room with other people? Maybe they will be happy if we get the virus,” said Mdlalose.

Confusion and hurt

Another neighbour, Siyabonga Mabala, 33, said the eThekwini Metropolitan Municipality should compensate the affected shack dwellers because of the high unemployment rate among them.

“I am confused why they would demolish our shacks, because President Cyril Ramaphosa said we must remain inside our homes during the lockdown. How could they do that to us when we are unemployed? The eThekwini municipality must give us land so that we can build our own homes. We lost everything. It is not fair,” said Mabala.  

“We are tired of councillor S’busiso Khwela in Ward 17. He is the one who apparently sent the security company. Instead of providing people with services such as water, sanitation, electricity and informing us about the Covid-19 virus, he is demolishing people’s homes.”  

Mabala said Khwela had failed Ekuphumeleleni’s residents, who cannot even afford hand sanitiser.

Broken promises

S’bu Zikode, the president of shack dwellers movement Abahlali baseMjondolo, said the government had promised there would be no evictions during the national lockdown. “Any attempt at forced evictions will be resisted … We urge all levels of government to engage us in a respectful and democratic manner as we work together to find a way through this crisis.” 

The Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa (Seri), whose lawyers represent the residents, has sent a letter to the eThekwini municipality demanding to know who authorised the evictions. The letter states that the security guards were not accompanied by the sheriff and did not provide a court order authorising the evictions. The guards also did not claim to be acting on the authority of a court order.

The letter, signed by Seri executive director Nomzamo Zondo, further states: “In the circumstances, the demolition of our clients’ homes was unlawful on the unfortunate basis that it took place after the Minister of Justice and Correctional Services issued a direction under the Disaster Management Act, published by Government Notice 43167 of 26 March 2020. In terms of directive 5(f), all evictions are suspended with immediate effect for the duration of the lockdown period.

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“We record our serious concern and deep regret that Calvin Security, purportedly on behalf of the eThekwini municipality, conducted these unlawful evictions on the first day of the national lockdown when evictions are suspended, and our clients were placed under a legal obligation to remain in their homes.”

What concerns the residents is that their homes were unlawfully demolished during a period in which they needed to be in their homes to stop the spread of Covid-19, as per instruction from the president.

“We are instructed to demand, as we hereby do, that the eThekwini Metropolitan Municipality and Calvin Security issue written undertakings by 12:00 on Monday 30 March 2020 that they, and their agents, will not evict our clients with or without an order of court in line with directions issued by the Minister of Justice and Correctional Services. Should we not receive this written undertaking, we are instructed to approach the high court for urgent relief. In the event that this becomes necessary, costs will be sought, on a punitive scale, against the municipality and Calvin Security Services,” continued the letter from Seri. 

Calvin Security did not respond to emails from New Frame requesting comment.

Municipality’s version disputed

eThekwini municipality spokesperson Msawakhe Mayisela said the city’s anti-land invasion unit would continue to operate as an essential service during the lockdown to prevent illegal land invasions.

“We stress that the unit does not conduct evictions but demolish unoccupied structures built illegally. We are appealing to the media to refrain from sensationalising. We will not tolerate it.

“Abahlali baseMjondolo should refrain from spreading lies to gain sympathy from the media. The demolitions were within the ambits of the law. The 21-day lockdown does not mean that lawlessness should prevail,” said Mayisela.

Zondo, however, disputes the municipality’s version of events.  

“The municipality wrote back claiming that they demolished new structures which were unoccupied. Our clients are clear that their homes were demolished. We are still discussing next steps,” said Zondo. 

Mbulelo Baloyi, spokesperson for the human settlements department, said member of the executive council Peggy Nkonyeni was informed on the morning of 30 March that a private security company, acting on behalf of the eThekwini municipality, had demolished between eight and 10 shack dwellings and allegedly assaulted residents.

“[She] has instructed the department’s head and the acting head of the eThekwini municipality to follow up on the matter,” said Baloyi.

Update, 2 April 2020:

The Minister of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation, Lindiwe Sisulu, has appealed with municipalities and private property owners to suspend evictions during the current lockdown. Sisulu met with officials and was informed of ongoing evictions around the country, including in the Ethekwini Metro.

Instead of the evictions, Sisulu said municipalities and private property owners should rather prioritise measures aimed at curbing the spread of the Covid-19.  

“We implore our municipalities and private property owners to understand that preferably, the only movement of people that should occur now is through the de-densification initiative that was recently announced by my department, which is aimed at preventing densely populated settlements from being overwhelmed by Covid-19. We are doing this in the best interest of our people, and it will be in their best interest to work with us”, Sisulu added.

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