About 11km from Springs, on the East Rand, is a place called Marievale, a previously abandoned South African National Defence Force (SANDF) base.
Last winter, military police and soldiers in armoured vehicles blocked the entrance to Marievale, preventing 600 people, some of whom had been living on the base soon after it had been abandoned more than 20 years ago, from entering or leaving their homes.
Many of the homes were “invaded” by soldiers, who ordered the civilian occupants, including children, to stand outside in the cold for several hours while the adults were “harassed and interrogated”. They were given 24 hours to vacate their homes. This was the first time the residents faced interference from the army.
Then, later in 2017, the army returned and the residents were forcibly evicted.
Tonnes of gold used to be mined in this area, and when large deposits of coal were discovered, it became a coal mining town. The apartheid regime then established the Marievale military base in November 1972, just two months before the 1973 Durban strikes that became a key turning point in the long struggle of black workers to build trade unions and mobilise collective power against their bosses, and the racist government.
Marievale operated as a military base for more than two decades. However, by 1995, only an infantry unit known as Group 16 remained at the base. Most of the troops were black soldiers deployed there after 1994. “There was a rationale that we would never need the base ever again after democracy,” SANDF spokesperson Siphiwe Dlamini explains.
By the early 2000s, housing for the many landless and homeless South Africans was a critical issue. Occupations of land and housing became increasingly common. As soldiers vacated the base, civilians began moving in. Over time, the new residents extended and refurbished the fixed structures.
According to Dlamini, the army made a “mistake” in allowing civilians to occupy the base. “I am admitting to you that … some of our own people [soldiers] were part of the problem because they fraudulently gave houses [to civilians] … and now it is the poor civilians that have to suffer,” he says.
By 2006, the base was officially handed back by the SANDF to the public works department, the government’s property custodian.
Four generations on a military base
Since 1978, Wanda Koekemoer, 60, has been living on the Marievale base with her 82-year-old father; her husband Hendrik Lambert, 64, a former soldier; and her eldest son, Jannie Koekemoer, who is an army sergeant.
Wanda worked for 18 years in the army golf club, while Hendrik was a sergeant major until he was retrenched in 2002. After his retrenchment, Hendrik obtained a contract that allowed him to continue staying on the base. He worked on the army’s golf course on the base until 2010.
Willem Koekemoer, 42, Wanda’s second-born son, lived two houses away from his parents. Willem’s wife, Anne, 42, worked in the army’s bulk storeroom and also did surveillance work. “That is how Willem ended up getting the house because his wife served in the army,” says Wanda.
Willem and Anne’s children Whalen, 23, Anphen, 20, and Awine, 18, also lived there.
After living on Marievale for 39 years, the Koekemoers were among the 600 residents evicted in late 2017.
According to Wanda, soldiers came to her house on 29 November 2017 to arrest Jannie. “They said the colonel wants to see him. They took Jannie to the offices and forced him to sign some papers. Jannie himself did not know what was going on. They gave him another piece of paper, he signed [my house] into his name and then signed it out of his name,” she says.
Jannie went back to the house at around 3pm, accompanied by two soldiers, who told Wanda that she had to be out of the house by 5pm.
“My husband’s got bad knees, he can’t walk … I had to do everything by myself and the soldiers were staring at me with their guns,” says Wanda. “Willem was coming running down the road, he said: ‘Mummy let me help you.’ As he tried, Colonel [Mafihlwase Reah] Mkhize shouted: ‘Arrest that man.’ [Then five soldiers] dropped him on the floor and put [Willem in] the van with no windows.
“A doctor said [the soldiers] hit Willem in a certain way that it does not show. His arm was hurt. They wanted his phone and a pin number because he was taking pictures and videos. His wife Anne told me that when Willem walked into the house, he was broken.”
Overcome by emotion, Wanda pauses to weep. “Willem said to me he couldn’t help his mum and dad, and couldn’t stand there to watch me picking up the stuff.”
Wanda is now a devastated woman. As it turns out, the eviction has robbed her of more than a home. In July this year, Willem hanged himself after battling with the depression caused by the trauma of the eviction. “Even the psychiatrist said that the Marievale thing triggered Willem to take his life … at night I listen to his voice and cry,” says Wanda.
Two months after burying Willem, Anphen, a first-year electrical engineering student at the University of Pretoria, could also not bear it any longer. “He hanged himself in a dormitory at [university],” says Wanda softly. “They were wonderful people … it is difficult to accept that they are gone. It is not fair…”
Wanda says Anphen’s breakdown began when soldiers pointed a gun at him and threatened to kill him. In May, Willem led 14 residents to fight the eviction in court. He stated in his affidavit that soldiers threatened some of the Marievale residents and their children at gunpoint.
‘Soldiers are not human beings’
During the forcible eviction last November, many residents left their furniture and livestock behind. Some sought refuge in Happiness Village, a nearby shack settlement, while others were taken in by family members.
Sindi Ndebele, 41, has been forced to relocate four times in the past 12 months. “This experience is slow poison … I would cry every day,” she says. “Soldiers are not human beings … when you ask questions they get angry and threaten to shoot you. Sometimes, when they ask you a question you must make sure the answer does not favour you.”
For Ndebele’s sister, Bongiwe Nkosi, 34, the scars caused by the eviction are still raw. “On 23 November 2017 at around 7.30pm, soldiers banged [on the] doors and windows of our house.” Nkosi recalls “about 12 heavily armed soldiers” screaming at them to open the gate. “After gaining entry, the soldiers asked: ‘Do you agree that you are here illegally?’” she says.
Ndebele told the soldiers they had been living on the base since November 2006 when her husband, who was a soldier, was transferred to South African Police Service’s VIP Protection unit. But after less than a month in his new post, her husband died in a car accident.
By 26 November 2017, the base was completely under siege. “I knocked off from work around 7pm and I was told that no one is allowed to go out from the base or inside it,” says Nkosi.
According to the SANDF’s Dlamini, the army works within certain prescripts and procedures. “You must confine to the policies and rules of the base. There is time [when] we close the gate. If you are outside you are outside,” he says.
Rosa Sithole, 22, was evicted from Marievale with her newborn baby during heavy rains. She named the baby Nomasosha Moyana – the name originates from the eviction. Explaining how he found his wife and child, Robert Moyana, 42, Rosa’s husband, says: “They should have died there, only God knows how they survived. I found them waiting outside the house. My daughter was covered with plastic [bags]. I ran to look for strong black plastics to build them a shelter because it was raining and very cold when the army evicted us,” recalls Robert.
When asked about the brutality displayed by the army during the evictions, Dlamini says: “Maybe we were too harsh in the manner we’ve evicted [the residents].”
On 29 November 2017, the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria issued an interdict preventing the SANDF, now stationed on the base, from evicting the civilians.
Tumi Weyi, 40, a community leader who now resides at John Dube near Duduza, 17 kilometres away from Marievale, says: “The soldiers said they don’t work with a court order.”
On the day of the ruling, the army had already tightened its control over people’s mobility. Ndebele and Nkosi say the soldiers would not allow them to leave the base when they wanted to go out to celebrate the good news with the rest of the community.
“We were not allowed to leave the base. The soldiers asked: ‘What time will you be back on the base? You must make sure that at 3pm you are back or else you won’t be able to gain entry.’”
On 29 January 2018, Marievale residents had made their first appearance before the North Gauteng High Court. The court ruled that the evictions were illegal.
An appeal from the SANDF was dismissed because of a lack of substantial evidence to show that the evictions were legally conducted. In court papers, the SANDF argued that the base had become a hive of criminal activity, with the Chief of SA Army alleging that some of the state quarters were vandalised, the cost of which was estimated at millions of rands.
But since the court order in January, the army has not allowed residents to return to the base. In May, the community went to court to compel the army to allow occupancy. Judge Norman Davis delivered a judgment that forced the army to restore people to their homes within 30 days.
On the day of Davis’s judgment, Defence and Military Veterans Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula issued a statement in which she said she respected the order and would abide by it.
But the SANDF is yet to abide by the court order.
According to Louise du Plessis of Lawyers for Human Rights, acting for the Marievale community, an application for contempt of court against Colonel Mkhize and the minister was filed on 21 November 2018. The judgment will be handed down on 30 November.
“The minister knows about this. There was no compliance to the court order, what is she doing?” asks Du Plessis, adding: “If you can’t turn to a court to get help, what will we do as a country? The rule of law is so important. They acted illegally, they then ignored court orders. It is really scary.
“We will ask the court to suspend the order for 10 days, if they don’t comply with that court order [in the next 10 days after the suspension], they will be imprisoned for 30 days … We don’t want to put officials in prison but what else can we do because nobody wants to take responsibility to comply with a court order?”
The army is still in full control of the base. Marievale’s civilian residents have dispersed into different townships in Springs. Most of them live in a shack settlement called Happiness Village, just 200 metres from the base, across the road.
The community says the army is trying all it can to make sure that the place is unlivable.
Just 300m east of the settlement lies the 1 000 hectare, internationally renowned tourist site, Marievale Bird Sanctuary. Around 500m north of Happiness Village, soldiers graze their cattle.
With its 98 shacks and a population of about 450, Happiness Village is isolated. The nearest town, Nigel, is 11km away. “Even when you want to buy a box of matches you have to walk for 11km,” says one resident.
The community says the army decided to evict them because of the wealth of minerals in the area. “Even if the army denies it, but we suspect that [they evicted us] because of coal,” says the chairperson of Happiness Village, Chris Koitsioe.
Marievale falls under ward 88, which is led by the Democratic Alliance. The ward councillor, Wollaston Labuschagne, says he has been trying to object to any opencast coal mining in the area. “The coal mines are after the coal reserve in this area, and that is why all of these evictions transpired,” says Labuschagne.
Mineral reserves and corporate greed
Labuschagne says he is convinced that the army evicted the Marievale community because of corporate investments. “This mining company that I am referring to already has an existing area where they do opencast coal mining. The cast is right next to the golf course managed by the SANDF,” he says.
According to Labuschagne, a high-ranking army official gave an order last year for the golf course be closed, without providing any reasons.
According to Dlamini, the reason for the SANDF’s reoccupation of the base is because of accommodation shortages. “The defence [force] has a lot of accommodation challenges [especially] within the Gauteng area. Most people in the defence force are from other places, they get [to be] deployed in Gauteng … accommodation is very critical for them to perform their duties,” he says.
When asked about the army being allegedly influenced by corporate investments to evict people, Dlamini says: “This is a rumour that we have no proof of.”
One community member says that “living here [in Happiness Village] is not nice”, adding: “There are no toilets, no water, no transport and no electricity. We cannot even have financial budgets, life is too uncertain here. We live like pigs.”
Another community member says residents of Happiness Village have to accompany their children to relieve themselves in the bushes.
The commanding officer of the army support base in Johannesburg, Colonel Mkhize, issued letters forcing Happiness Village residents to sign agreements that they will not carry out any structural alterations. The agreement also stated that tuckshop and shebeen owners in Happiness Village should cease doing business by the end of October 2018 if they did not have permits to run such businesses.
Gracinda Mazive, a shop owner in Happiness Village, says: “Mkhize said, ‘This is my place, I do not want any shops here.’”
Mazive, 35, who is a mother of four, adds: “I am doing business in my shack. I refused to sign the papers. They said after two weeks I have to close the shop if I refuse to sign the papers.”
Mazive has had a shop since she moved to Marievale in 2006. “I am able to feed my children because of this shop, [including] my oldest child who is in grade 12 in Mozambique. It is difficult to live in a place like this because it is like you are living in the street, you do not even know when you will [experience another eviction],” she says.