Evictions leave Airport Park residents stranded

East London in the Eastern Cape is yet another South African city where the brutal demolition of homes in a shack settlement has left residents despairing during lockdown.

Almost 200 residents of a shack settlement on government-owned land fell victim to a mass eviction and the demolition of their homes on 27 July, with houses reportedly worth as much as R150 000 being crushed by bulldozers.

Known as Airport Park because it lies next to East London Airport, the settlement was established in 1987 on Greydell Farm portion 871. In 2018 about 80 families, some of whose members were born there more than 30 years ago, cleared a bushy, crime-infested area on the same portion of the farm and built shacks as well as brick houses. The land is owned by the department of Public Works.

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Thabo Walile, 39, is one of the people who has lived in Airport Park since 1987 and who lost everything when his home was demolished. He and other residents said the police confiscated all their possessions, including clothing, furniture and food. When he spoke to New Frame, Walile and about 200 adults, pensioners, children and even babies were getting ready to spend their second night sleeping amid the rubble of their ruined homes in the cold of winter. “The elderly people are traumatised and so am I,” he said. “My home was destroyed. Ten of us lived there.”

Walile was dumbfounded by the evictions and demolitions. “I cannot understand this because my family and I have been here since 1987. All we did was to extend our shack when our family grew bigger. This is the same portion 871 of Greydell Farm that we have always lived on. We didn’t go and occupy another land. So how can we be evicted after 33 years?” 

27 July 2020: Police arrive to monitor community members as they watch their homes being demolished by the Buffalo City Metro Municipality.
27 July 2020: Police arrive to monitor community members as they watch their homes being demolished by the Buffalo City Metro Municipality.

Babalwa Mausi, 35, showed New Frame a harrowing video of her family’s home, made of concrete blocks, being demolished. Her visibly pregnant sister, Kwakhanya Mausi, 26, paces up and down in her socks near the bulldozer crying loudly while police look on impassively.

“Everything happened in front of my little sister, the one who’s crying in the video. She’s eight months pregnant and she’s traumatised. We took her to the doctor but even now she’s not OK,” said Mausi, who added that the family had taken shelter with relatives in Amalinda.

Promises and contestation

Over the past three decades, some Airport Park residents were given state houses and moved away, but others had nowhere to go. Residents said last week’s demolitions were carried out in terms of a 2015 court order, but they were not given copies of it on the day.

27 July 2020: Buffalo City Metro Municipality workers and a resident carry out benches from a structure used as the Zion Christian Church.
27 July 2020: Buffalo City Metro Municipality workers and a resident carry out benches from a structure used as the Zion Christian Church.

Despite the court order, the site has been contested for a long time, with an intergovernmental task team established in 2015 to find a solution for the department and the residents. Walile recounts many meetings prior to this with politicians and government officials at Airport Park. He says they were first promised, in 1998, that they would be relocated to a new housing development. Later there were pledges of so-called RDP houses for them in different parts of the city, and then, in 2015, they were told they would get the title deeds to their plots in Airport Park.

“Even the former Eastern Cape MEC [member of the executive council] for public works, Thandiswa Marawu, came here and we had a meeting with her right here. She promised to give us the land and even our councillor was there promising [it to] us,” said Walile.

Violence and destruction

He and other residents told New Frame that when the bulldozers came on 27 July, the police opened fire at close range with rubber bullets, even shooting at babies.

“I was shot on my back with a rubber bullet for taking pictures. The police then took my camera and deleted most of the pictures I took,” said resident Eric Dilima.

Although his house was not demolished, he said his heart was “torn apart” by pity for his neighbours. “Our homes, our life’s savings and investments, our hard work destroyed in front of our eyes, and we couldn’t even stop them. With no warning and no eviction notice, they just came. Others were asked to remove their furniture so that they can demolish the house. 

“We are told to stay home because of Covid-19, yet our homes are destroyed. They say ‘vuka uzenzele [get up and do it yourself]’. We have built these houses yet they are destroying them. I so wish they would have warned us first,” Dilima said.

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Whereas the government has claimed that the residents who have moved to the settlement over the years are delaying crucial development of the airport, the residents say they did the government a favour by this latest clearing of the land and their moving in.

Before the densely bushed area was cleared, workers who crossed it were often attacked by criminals. “They were committing crimes against us there when we were on our way to work. Our cattle were stolen and killed, and when we went to the police they asked us who did we want to accuse? The police had no interest in catching the criminals. The police said we should not catch the criminals ourselves or they would arrest us,” Walile said.

Airport Park resident Leonard Asaza Ncumbese, 38, agreed. “It was so bushy and was used for criminal activity such as raping children and old ladies, and by criminals who hid stolen stuff there. We actually helped the government reduce crime there.” 

Ncumbese is one of the few residents whose house was not destroyed, but he fears that the police and bulldozers will be back. 

27 July 2020: The Zion Christian Church structure being demolished. Nearly 200 residents were left homeless by the eviction.
27 July 2020: The Zion Christian Church structure being demolished. Nearly 200 residents were left homeless by the eviction.

Angry with the ANC government

There is widespread anger at the ruling party over the destruction of homes. The day after the demolitions, residents protested carrying placards saying “The ANC has failed us, Julius Malema please help us”.

“During the lockdown, President Ramaphosa mentioned that no evictions could take place,” said Ncumbese. “So we are shocked and surprised that the very same government is doing demolitions and evictions during lockdown, [under] the very same president who says ‘stay in your house during Covid-19’. Where are people supposed to go?” 

“It is very cruel what they have done. They even crushed the concrete blocks down into tiny pieces after demolishing the houses so that people cannot use them to build anywhere else, even if they have an alternative space.” 

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Walile said he knew why the government had evicted them and demolished their homes. “It is because they know we are poor and have no money. Now we are homeless, too, and traumatised. The people we voted for want to kill us with rubber bullets. 

“We have no rights in our own South Africa. Why are we even voting? They have the right to kill us and put us in jail, steal our food and blankets, but only God knows,” said Walile. 

Misconceptions about housing

In 2016, Marawu accused some of the people in Airport Park of building “expensive large houses” on the land. But Marie Huchzermeyer at the University of the Witwatersrand’s school of architecture and planning says it is a misconception that people who build brick houses in shack settlements are rich or opportunistic land invaders. She says they do it for protection against shack fires and because they might have been misled into thinking they would soon be getting a title deed for the land.

“An RDP house costs around R200 000 to build, and that is a minimal structure with no luxuries. Wherever possible, low-income households need to be encouraged to build for themselves, but this requires a level of tenure security that ensures that such investments are secured,” said Huchzermeyer.

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“Simply demolishing with none of the above taken into consideration, with no consultation and no compensation in place, does seem to be a violation on various fronts.” 

The Kwanele People’s Movement Agenda 7, a social justice movement in East London, has condemned the demolitions and evictions. “This is another flagrant disregard for the dignity of humans by a ‘people’s government’. It is a huge violation of lockdown rules. We condemn such high-handed disregard for the healthy wellbeing of this community,” said chairperson Phumelele Phoswa.

27 July 2020: A member of the community stands with the contents of the church structure as he watches another shack being destroyed.
27 July 2020: A member of the community stands with the contents of the church structure as he watches another shack being destroyed.

Passing the buck

Buffalo City Metropolitan Municipality spokesperson Samkelo Ngwenya referred all New Frame’s queries to public works. Ngwenya said because the land belongs to the department, the municipality’s involvement has been “at operational support level. We have in the past condemned and acted against any land invasion as they put strain on the resources and hinder development plans.”

Minister of Public Works and Infrastructure Patricia de Lille did not respond when asked how it could be justified for the department to breach lockdown regulations and evict people in the middle of winter during a pandemic.

The Eastern Cape spokesperson for the South African Police Service, Colonel Sibongile Soci, said the police went to the demolition and eviction “to maintain law and order. It is alleged that while the Sheriff of the Court executed the duties, a large group of people appeared and started throwing stones towards the Sheriff of the Court personnel and the police. During the stone throwing by the perpetrators a vehicle belonging to the Survey section was hit by stone as a result, the rear window was broken. Rubber bullets were used to disperse the crowd.” 

Soci would not say how it was justified for police to open fire with rubber bullets on babies because one car window had been broken, only saying that anyone who was injured must open a case at the police station.

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The provincial department of Public Works and Infrastructure spokesperson Lunga Mahlangu said the demolition was carried out under a 2015 court order granted to the department to “prevent any illegal invasion”. He did not say why the department had chosen mid-winter in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown to implement the court order. Mahlangu said no lockdown regulations against evictions had been breached. “This was not an eviction but a demolition of illegally constructed structures. The only structures that were demolished were new structures under construction or unoccupied structures as they pose a threat to the airport because they are in the flight path of the runway”.

Mahlangu added that if the homes had not been demolished, the airport may have had to close and the ecologically sensitive forest in Airport Park might have been endangered. But when asked why the airport would have suddenly needed to close when it had been functioning since the latest houses were built in 2018, he did not reply.

27 July 2020: Buffalo City Metro Municipality employees clear up and remove rubble and debris to prevent residents from rebuilding structures.
27 July 2020: Buffalo City Metro Municipality employees clear up and remove rubble and debris to prevent residents from rebuilding structures.

Mahlangu said “in hindsight, the Intergovernmental Task Team had recommended that a permanent solution ought to be adopted and implemented by the respective principals”. But he did not explain why the department had ignored the task team’s recommendation to find a solution, which was made some time ago. 

Instead, he said only that a process would begin of “identification of alternative land and relocation of qualifying beneficiaries so as to resolve the situation”. When asked why this was not done before the homes were demolished and where the evicted people would live in the interim, Mahlangu did not respond. 

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