Police leave East Rand shack dwellers out in the cold

A group of people who organised a new occupation, have been left homeless and brutalised after their shacks and belongings were destroyed. They blame an uncaring government for their plight.

Two people were shot with live ammunition, 15 injured and four arrested near the newly established Zikode land occupation in Thembisa on Gauteng’s East Rand just three days after the police had demolished shacks and promised to come back with “brute force and cruelty”.

Scattered cardboard, planks and huge circles of ash were all that remained of people’s homes after the police demolished and burnt the shacks of residents who had previously lived in eDamini, a wetland behind Birch Acres shopping mall in Kempton Park. 

The eDamini shack dwellers were hit by floods in February. According to them, the local ward councillor, Hendrick Selwana, committed to moving them to new land because the settlement is uninhabitable. Three and a half months later, they could no longer bear the conditions and settled on a dry piece of land by the main road near the mall. 

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Thulani Molefe, 35, speaking on behalf of the settlement, said those in power seem unconcerned about their plight. “The councillor came and had people register and said he would identify a plot of land soon. When we tried to contact him for updates, he said he was on sick leave or gave another excuse. 

“People grew tired and used this free land. Now they are struggling and being shot at, with rubber bullets, having their belongings destroyed and burnt. The MEC [member of the executive council for human settlements Lebogang Maile] came here today [13 June] but only spoke to his metros [police], not the people. He stopped by the main road and didn’t come near here at all,” said Molefe.

South Africa has a housing crisis and in Gauteng, which many people choose because of its perceived economic opportunities, the situation is dire. Because of this, impoverished people are resorting to desperate measures to have a roof over their head. The provincial Department of Human Settlements has an estimated backlog of two million houses, which would mean about six million people. 

Barely surviving

The group from eDamini were only promised a piece of land where they would have to fend for themselves and create structures from whatever material they could find. “We are moving the people who were affected by the floods, we have identified land for them,” Selwana said. When asked where the land is and how many have been moved as no one from eDamini had been contacted he said: “For any further details, come to the office.”

Phindile Nzukuma, 34, a mother of three children who moved from the Eastern Cape more than a decade ago in search of a job, is one of the residents whose belongings were destroyed by the police. She sells lollipops, packets of crisps and biscuits to make a living, and only managed to salvage a small backpack in which she keeps her stock.  

“After the police came for the first time last Sunday [5 June], I slept with this bag on me because they took everything, even pots, sheets. Today [13 June] they took my sheet and wood I use to cook and threw it into a fire. So I have to stay alert so I can at least make a bit of money. Nobody works here, my sister,” Nzukuma said. 

Speaking on Friday 10 June, Nzukuma said: “The police said we are making this place dirty. Those are also the councillor’s words. The way they behave it’s as if we have done something wrong to them, so much so that they told us that if we don’t leave, they will come back ngesihluku esinyantisa umzimba (with a force and cruelty that will shake us to the core).” Three days later, the police kept their word. 

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Asked where she and her children, aged two, eight and 10, were going to sleep, Nzukuma said: “I have asked someone to keep them for me nearby because this is no situation for a child. It gets dangerous. I will have to go with the other women, look for material to build again before it gets dark and cold, especially since there are children around.” 

Behind her were women lying on small pieces of cardboard with children playing around them. On the opposite side of the plot of land a group of men stood in a circle, seeming to be planning something. When they scattered, Molefe said they were going to walk around in Thembisa looking for building material.

Molefe said despite the constant loss the shack dwellers faced, they were hopeful for a resolution. “We will try to speak to the MEC and see if he can understand us and help us out of this situation, but we are scared for our lives because we are being hunted down, especially the known leaders of Abahlali baseMjondolo,” he said.

Nzukuma said she had a single question for the councillor. “If he says we should leave here, where should we go because these are our homes? Where should we go if he doesn’t offer us new land to go to? Where can we go?”

Naledi Sikhakhane is the 2022 Eugene Saldanha fellow in social justice journalism supported by the Summit Educational Trust.

Correction, 22 June 2022: A previous version of this article used Thembisa’s old spelling.

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