Shack dwellers determined not to back down

Western Cape residents living on occupied land continue to face off with the police and local municipality as their struggle for housing intensifies.

As land occupations continue in and around Cape Town, activists from various organisations representing the homeless continue to face arrest over what they are calling police “brutality, intimidation and harassment”. 

The police arrested 22 members of the Housing Assembly social movement in Malmesbury on 23 July, following the arrest of 15 Silvertown residents in the same area. Officers also arrested an unknown number of Community Action Network members, which forms part of Cape Town Together, a task team set up to help Capetonians contain the spread of Covid-19, in the Makhaza shack settlement in Khayelitsha. 

Silvertown is a bone of contention in Malmesbury, about 70km from Cape Town. The shack settlement is on private agricultural land on the outskirts of town that falls under the Swartland Municipality. The municipality says residents settled here six years ago after they were sold plots illegally on Gumtree, a claim that the Housing Assembly disputes.

Housing Assembly secretary Stephen Maciko said the land was bought in 2008 for R50 000 from Cape Lifestyle, one of the co-owners of the property. “The residents then decided to occupy the land in May 2014. We did not get the land via Gumtree. That is a lie,” he said.

23 July 2020: The police arrested 15 Silvertown residents after they protested against the lack of basic services such as electricity and sanitation in the shack settlement.
23 July 2020: The police arrested 15 Silvertown residents after they protested against the lack of basic services such as electricity and sanitation in the shack settlement.

“The people have settled here illegally over a period of six years, erecting either formal or informal dwellings on ‘plots’ that have been sold to them illegally via, inter alia, Gumtree,” said Swartland Municipality manager Joggie Scholtz. He added that the municipality has been part of a lawsuit by private landowner Cape Lifestyle Investments looking to evict the occupants, initially making up 52 households.

“To date the matter has not been finalised by the courts, and pending the delayed outcome of the eviction application, the number of dwellings and households in the settlement have increased dramatically. And accordingly also a demand for the provision of services and infrastructure by the municipality,” said Scholtz.

The residents of this area, many of them back-yarders from townships around Cape Town, have increased in number to about 4 000 families. They have been crying out for basic services as they share two taps and use the bushy area across the road as a toilet. 

Lack of dignity

Sam Khutwana, 76, was one of the first residents of Silvertown. “Living here is a struggle,” he said. “We queue for water coming from these two taps. Just imagine a settlement this huge having to rely on two taps for water. Not to mention the struggle of having to cross the road at night when you want to relieve yourself.

23 July 2020: Sam Khutwana draws water from the two communal taps on which the entire settlement depends.
23 July 2020: Sam Khutwana draws water from the two communal taps on which the entire settlement depends.

“Not only that we have to cross the road looking out for cars, relieving yourself is embarrassing as you do that while others are watching,” he said while loading four buckets of water on to a handmade trolley.

Lungelwa Nhose has given up watching television. “We have not had electricity since we came here. We rely on those with solar systems to watch it,” she said.

Although this area consists largely of shacks, there are some brick houses that the residents have built themselves.

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Scholtz said that as the municipality does not own the land and Silvertown has not been declared a formal township, the municipality is not in a position to provide basic services and is still waiting for a court ruling.

“The community has, since 2014, had access to water via a standpipe that was erected by the municipality. A further two standpipes as well as a water tank were erected before the lockdown commenced,” he said.

Dissuading tactics

On arrests, Silvertown residents and Housing Assembly activists said the municipality had been employing dissuading tactics. They have vowed to continue demanding basic services, which are their human right.

“We were outside the building posing no threat. The police came and fired tear gas and we ran. I ran to the taxi rank and I was chased and dragged out of a taxi. I was pinned down. The other police put his knee on top of my chest while pulling my right arm. My shoulder was dislocated,” said Sivuyile Njila, 29, who moved to the area from the Dunoon township in 2015.

23 July 2020: Sibulele Nyolobe says he can no longer chew after the police broke his jaw while arresting him.
23 July 2020: Sibulele Nyolobe says he can no longer chew after the police broke his jaw while arresting him.

Sibulele Nyolobe, 24, is also originally from Dunoon. He cannot chew after having his jaw broken while being arrested in his shack in Silvertown on 17 July. “The police came to my house at around 11am. They beat me without asking questions. I fell to the ground. They kicked me in the face. I only eat soft food like porridge now.”

Bulisaninkosi Maphosa, 27, from Gugulethu said the police came to them while they were singing outside. “We were given 10 minutes to disperse. They immediately threw teargas and we split. We were then chased. They beat me to such an extent that my arm is still sore.”

Nomawethu Nciwa, 33, from the Joe Slovo shack settlement in Milnerton said: “I was slapped and fell down. I was kicked repeatedly while I was lying down.”

23 July 2020: Nomawethu Nciwa says she was slapped and kicked while being arrested on 16 July.
23 July 2020: Nomawethu Nciwa says she was slapped and kicked while being arrested on 16 July.

‘The struggle will continue’

The 22 Housing Assembly members arrested on 23 July had gathered in front of the municipal building ahead of a scheduled meeting with Scholtz. On arrival, they were told the meeting had been postponed, said Maciko.

“This is intimidation and police brutality. We were arrested on our way to the taxi rank just like on the 16th. A man’s leg was broken after he was kicked by the police. We are fighting for our rights to basic services. We cannot go back now. The struggle will continue,” said an executive from another organisation, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal and was among those arrested on 23 July. 

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Maciko said he found it bizarre that the police released 12 of those arrested without laying charges against them, after holding them for 24 hours. Ten were released on bail of R300 each.

He said the meeting with the municipal manager was scheduled for 11am. “We arrived at the building and [were] told Scholtz was not available. We wanted to know where he was and if we can wait for him. After hours, we realised the meeting will not take place and left. Tear gas followed us and we ran. We were chased to the rank. That is how our members were arrested for the second time in two weeks.”

Maciko said the meeting had been scheduled on 16 July. “We went there as per agreement. They knew we were coming. I don’t know why we were arrested as if we were marching illegally.”

Official response

Western Cape police spokesperson Noloyiso Rwexana said the protesters were arrested after they became violent. She said a group of about 40 people were involved in a protest. 

“The public order police and the law enforcement monitored them and the protesters became violent. Twenty-two people were arrested for public violence and will be released on a notice to appear in court,” she said.

Scholtz declined to comment on allegations that the meeting had been cancelled or that he’d not made himself available for a scheduled meeting. 

23 July 2020: Bulisaninkosi Maphosa was one of those arrested on 16 July.
23 July 2020: Bulisaninkosi Maphosa was one of those arrested on 16 July.

He said the municipality has met with Silvertown representatives on various occasions, on 18 and 25 June and again on 16 July. “These discussions took place without prejudice in an attempt to seek both short and long-term solutions, with a view to bring an end to the litigation. 

“Based on legal advice, possible alternatives to the eviction are being sought as it is acknowledged that due to the increased influx into the land, the court may resolve that the land be either purchased or expropriated in order to formalise the settlement,” he said.

Meanwhile, people have marked off and occupied plots of land along the N2 highway.

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