Land occupiers have ‘nowhere else to go’

The occupiers of a piece of land adjacent to Sophiatown shack settlement say they have no option but to rebuild, no matter how many times the police tear down their shacks.

When Ekurhuleni Metro Police demolished and allegedly attacked a group of land occupiers in February, Zingiswa Mkholokotho, 24, was shot in the back with a rubber bullet. She was not the only one. 

The police returned to the occupation twice on 25 February, without firing rubber bullets. On 1 March, they allegedly beat a community member with the butt of a gun and kicked another. Both have opened cases against the officers. Community members say the police have come back every day since, so now they build with boxes instead of corrugated iron.

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“No one was fighting … we asked why they want to demolish. From there, I don’t know what happened,” says Mkholokotho. “I just suddenly heard people shouting that they are firing rubber bullets and we ran into the bushes. To show that we were not fighting, we ran. But still, they did not stop.”

“It’s sore,” Mkholokotho says of the rubber bullet wound on her lower back. “Even now I feel like it’s better if I don’t bend.” 

Cases have been registered at the Rabie Ridge police station, with case numbers texted to some individuals. 

15 February 2021: Zingiswa Mkholokotho was shot in the lower back while running from metro police officers during February’s demolition of shacks on municipal land in Tembisa, Ekurhuleni.

Left with only the clothes on their backs

The occupiers claim that some of the shacks on municipal land in Tembisa, Ekurhuleni, have been there since December. About 20 structures have been erected next to Sophiatown shack settlement, where many of the occupiers first lived before the pandemic made their circumstances even worse. Sophiatown shack settlement is currently being reblocked, with street light poles already up, meaning electricity connection is imminent.

The police have demolished shacks more than 10 times without producing a court order, engaging with community members or finding out whether people have alternative temporary accommodation. Mkholokotho says they took most of her belongings, but she will rebuild a small structure in which to sleep until she has more money.

“Where are we going to sleep when things are like this? Where will we sleep?” she asks, looking at the flattened structures, dirtied clothes and dusty mattresses. “If they come back tomorrow, they will take our boards, but we will go back … in fact, the truth is that we have even run out of money to rebuild, so we will have to ask door to door. What else can we do? What can we do? We will come back because there is nowhere else we can go.”

Mkholokotho moved to Johannesburg from KwaZulu-Natal hoping to help her single mother, who takes care of her younger siblings. She found a job as a waitress at OR Tambo International Airport, but soon flights were grounded as international borders closed. Mkholokotho lost her job and could no longer afford to pay rent to umastandi, the Johannesburg version of the isiZulu word (umastende) for landlord. She is one among many. Recent figures from Statistics South Africa show that the unemployment rate climbed alarmingly in the fourth quarter.

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“Many places closed because of lockdown but umastandi wants rent, and when they want their rent, I don’t have rent money, and umastandi explains that if you don’t have the money to pay, you must leave,” she says. 

Nomsebenzi Mxi, 52, was also retrenched from her job in Midrand last year and lost her monthly income of R2 700. She could not pay the R200 rent to her landlord in Sophiatown shack settlement and had to leave. She moved on to the adjacent land. The metro police arrived while Mxi was taking a bath. 

“One of the metros barged in and saw me bathing before stepping out and telling me to come out or I would be arrested. Before I knew it, another one came in and pointed a rubber bullet gun at me. I immediately ran towards the reeds by the river,” she says. She tried to pick up what she could as she ran. “What I have on my back is all I am left with.”

15 February 2021: Nomsebenzi Mxi holds the bits of clothing she managed to salvage after her shack’s demolition. Police barged in while she was bathing and ordered her outside.

Mxi – who lives alone – made it out in the petticoat dress she was wearing, losing one sandal along the way. She lost her bed, her sleeper couch and some pots, among other things. 

“I went to Rabie Ridge police station to … open a case and the policewoman told me that she should be arresting me since I am the one breaking the law by occupying. She said that a metro police cannot be arrested,” Mxi says. 

The Rabie Ridge police confirmed that a case a community member had opened earlier was under investigation, with no arrests made so far. 

Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Police Department spokesperson Thabiso Makgato directed queries to the Department of Human Settlements, saying that land occupations were multidisciplinary and fused the work and approvals of many departments. He said investigations would determine if rubber bullets were used and that a court order was not needed as these were not evictions but the demolition of “unoccupied structures”.

City of Ekurhuleni mayoral office spokesperson Zweli Dlamini was unreachable. 

Injured by falling debris

Nokhanyo Pato, 54, had to be taken to Tembisa Hospital on 10 February when metro police officers demolished her shack while she was inside it. She has been on a disability grant for the past four years.

“They came while I was still sleeping … My children ran away when they saw the metro police. They are now traumatised by them. I was left alone in the shack, and the metros didn’t believe me when I said I could not get up without help, they have to lift me,” she says from her mattress.

They tore down her shack while she lay in it, causing a plank that held the structure up to fall on her. 

15 February 2021: Nokhanyo Pato had to be hospitalised after metro police officers demolished her structure while she was inside.

Pato’s entire right side gradually became limp before permanently ceasing to function in 2017. “I spend the whole day sleeping. I can’t walk and most of the time, I have a sore neck from sitting on this side all day, so I sleep all day,” she says, holding her arm in a sling.

Pato says she was told she would be sent a J88 form but has not received one yet. This is a document filed before a legal investigation, compiled by a registered nurse or doctor for injuries someone sustains.

Nonkululeko Qashani, 43, is unemployed and lives with her husband and child. She sometimes helps Pato. 

“I was peeling potatoes, getting ready to make food for [Pato] when the metros started shooting, so I started running and they shot me just before I entered the bushes by the stream where we all hid … This doesn’t sit well with us because we need a place to stay because jobs are gone and we don’t have rent money,” says Qashani, who moved to Sophiatown shack settlement in 1999 but lost her job and was unable to pay her R250 rent. 

Ward 13 councillor Sibanyoni Ndala says he spoke to the community and knew the place was inhabited, but does not have the final say on whether the metro police demolish structures or not.

“The people who send [the metro police] to demolish our shacks do not know the circumstances people find themselves in,” says Mkholokotho. “They don’t know what we are going through. They just hear that new structures are erected. Why don’t they give themselves the opportunity to come here and find out what has led to us being here and see the reason why we are here? They must just give themselves that chance. Because [in] the end, you will never know the pain of someone else until you go through it, but they will never experience it.”

Community members are seeking legal help.

Correction, 17 March 2021: This article previously stated that photographs were taken on 15 March 2021, instead of 15 February 2021.

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