Municipalities defy Covid-19 eviction moratorium

eThekwini and the City of Cape Town have continued to demolish the homes of shack dwellers, despite an appeal by government to suspend evictions and focus on coping with Covid-19.

“Where is this ‘stay indoors’ when the homes we stay in are being demolished? When we are being evicted? Corona requires us to take care of ourselves. We are scared of corona but the biggest virus is to be left homeless. For the government to come with guns and to come and fight us. There are children here. There are old people here. Our children are traumatised,” says Nomsa Sizani, 47. She stays in Ekukhanyeni in KwaZulu-Natal and says they have been subject to state brutality since before the lockdown. 

Despite a moratorium placed on evictions during the national 21-day lockdown, residents of the Burnwood Road settlement, Ekuphumeleleni, KwaDukuza and Azania, also in KwaZulu-Natal, have been forcibly displaced. 

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In Khayelitsha’s Zweledinga shack settlement in the Western Cape, occupants of about 40 shacks on City-owned land were left out in the cold as officers and members of the anti-land invasion unit demolished homes and confiscated building material following a court order. 

“We are struggling because we ask them to build us houses. They don’t, and then we build them ourselves, and we are attacked. We are brutalised by the state,” says Sizani. “Some of us are single parents and we cannot afford to rebuild each time the government demolishes. Our government doesn’t think of us. Women empowerment is not a thing. We are not added there. We are not counted there because we are trying to empower ourselves when we build our shacks, but they bring us down. Our government treats us like we are not human beings.” She adds that evicting women from their homes is at odds with the government’s stance on gender-based violence. It seems not to apply equally across class and race. 

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While evictions were carried out and homes were damaged or burned, many lost their possessions including South African Social Security Agency grant cards, ID books and immunisation cards for infants. Many have been unable to take their medication for chronic illnesses. 

“It is painful as women to see our men beaten, our children killed … We have been taking it but enough is enough. We are fed up because we don’t know what we have done. Since 2005 we have been facing these evictions but we are now tired … Even during this time when there should be unity to fight [the coronavirus] … this must happen to us, simply because we are poor and we don’t count,” she says. 

Sizani lost her 29-year-old son, Samuel Hloele, in 2017 when the anti-land invasion unit attacked them on land they had occupied. No arrests have since been made.

Homeless during lockdown

On the first day of the lockdown, a private security company evicted Ekuphumeleleni residents. A resident who was struck on the head with a pickaxe was hospitalised. A week before, similar evictions were carried out. On 31 March 2020, officials attacked residents in Azania, this time allegedly using live ammunition. More were left injured. Two days later, Ekuphumeleleni residents were again attacked by the same company, allegedly along with the help of the army and police. 

Right2Know has written to the president and eThekwini mayor Mxolisi Kaunda about the evictions taking place in the municipality’s Cato Manor area. 

In March, a letter was submitted to the president requesting that evictions be placed on hold during the lockdown to curb the spread of the virus. It argued that evictions that render people homeless can significantly increase the spread of the virus.

“One cannot practise physical distancing should you find yourself and your belongings on the side of the road or in an open space and exposed to the public with no means of protection,” reads the letter.

The Social Justice Coalition was one of the over 20 organisations that signed the letter. Its general secretary, Axolile Notywala, says the evictions have been carried out without a court order and law enforcement officials should be held accountable.  

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“This is deeply concerning because these are evictions that have been happening before the pandemic and there is a clear directive … that these should be suspended and yet we see municipalities continuing in a violent manner,” he says, adding that South Africa already has many homeless people, which increases those at risk during a pandemic.

“On top of the psychological effects of such violent evictions where we see them with weapons, beating people up, evictions are chaotic and cause chaos. There is a likelihood of [the virus] being moved when this happens. For them to be moving around is a danger. Instead we are saying [shack dwellers] must be prioritised in terms of basic services, not to be evicted, not to be moved,” he says. 

Abahlali baseMjondolo president S’bu Zikode says evictions leave shack dwellers exposed in every sense.

“While we are facing [the] coronavirus, municipalities continue to evict people illegally and violently … The municipality is tearing down the homes of people who are vulnerable, making them even more vulnerable by rendering them homeless and fearing for corona,” he says.

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eThekwini mayoral spokesperson Mluleki Mntungwa has justified the evictions, saying the City had identified areas where “lawlessness” was taking place. 

“No one is supposed to be outside, so you can’t be at this point invading land that doesn’t belong to you and erecting illegal structures. We are enforcing the law,” he says.

Mntungwa said that there was no need for a court order as these were new structures and people had not started occupying yet but were in the process of erecting them. But Ekuphumeleleni was established in October 2019, and Azania has been around for over a year.

“The evictions that have occurred are from people taking advantage of the lockdown. There are people erecting shacks in areas where they are not supposed to be. They are exploiting this thing [imagining] that officers are enforcing the lockdown and won’t pick up lawlessness,” he says.

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Mntungwa said that the City has three programmes in place to provide all the necessities for the homeless. The City is currently rolling out an awareness programme in shack settlements to urge people to abide by regulations.

Sizani says approaching the government is not easy. They are often denied basic services. 

“In the places we live in, there is no collection of refuse. We have no toilets. We have to go relieve ourselves in the bush and the stench can be smelled by everyone in the vicinity. We also have to go and fetch water. Sometimes we have to go to a nearby stream meaning we share water with cows,” she says. 

eThekwini former mayor Zandile Gumede was arrested for her role in a corrupt Durban solid waste management contract in which R400 million was allegedly squandered by authorities. For months, refuse has not been collected in parts of the city.

Social distancing ‘impossible’

Sizani understands social distancing requires keeping a certain number of metres away from the next person and avoiding crowds of 50 or more people, but she says there are already more than 50 in any township or shack settlement. 

“We have locked ourselves in our homes but some shacks have about five or six people in the same room. We breathe the same air and we are cramped in the shacks … If I breathe, it is [like]… breathing the same air as our neighbours because we are so close,” she says. 

Zikode fears that the cramped conditions in shack settlements will make the virus spread quickly.

“While we welcome the call of the president [to institute a lockdown], we think it’s not going to [be practically applicable] to those who live in informal settlements,” he says. “Social distancing is impossible … We cannot comply practically because we are squashed together and as a result we think it’s time that municipalities provide these basic services very urgently, including water and sanitation so people can comply and wash hands.”

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Despite Mntungwa’s assertions about an education programme being rolled out, a week into the lockdown, Zikode says most of the information they have has been communicated through the media but they have taken various practical steps to prepare for the outbreak.

Densely populated shack settlements in places such as Khayelitsha, KwaMashu, Inanda, Umlazi and Alexandra have already reported cases of the virus. 

“If there is one infection in a settlement, that is stressful,” Zikode says. “It’s high time [government] worked with the people …We have to self-educate because we cannot wait for this thing … It is our responsibility. We have also written to [the] MEC for health so they can give us the resources to enable us to educate our communities,” he says. 

De-densification or eviction?

On 2 April, Minister of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation Lindiwe Sisulu appealed to municipalities to suspend evictions and focus on combating the spread of 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,” read a statement.

Although Sisulu has positioned the de-densification of 29 identified areas across three provinces as something done in the interest of the people aimed at “preventing densely populated settlements from being overwhelmed”, Notwyala has cautioned that de-densification initiatives could play out as evictions, saying government shies away from using the word “eviction” because that would require a court order. 

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“It may be a new way of evicting people that is also removal of people and the current presence of the army and police may be as violent as many evictions … we have seen before when people resist. If this is done without proper consultation and regard for people, it will look like other evictions. The minister must consult these communities,” he says.

The heavy arm of the state has already been felt by those killed by authorities during the lockdown. Several people have died so far for allegedly defying lockdown regulations, including a man who was shot by authorities in his own yard, while a rape has also been reported.

“Poor or rich, no one must be killed. We cannot be facing this fear [coronavirus] and now we fear death, being homeless and sleeping outside, facing issues of rape but we see that we are being harassed. The same person we think is concerned about protecting us, is the one inflicting this harm on us,” says Sizani. 

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