Soldiers harass us, say residents of ‘ecovillage’

An ‘equal community’ living on a long-defunct military base in the heart of Cape Town feels threatened by the behaviour of defence force members who have moved back into its midst.

Residents of an ecovillage facing Cape Town’s Table Mountain have been placed under a curfew by South African National Defence Force soldiers, who are also denying them the right to visits from family and friends. The village is on state-owned land in the custodianship of the Department of Defence, and some members of the community have now called for an independent authority to monitor the behaviour of the soldiers and prevent what one resident described as a slow, “constructive eviction”.

Erf 81, comprising 8.4 hectares of prime city land, stretches along Signal Hill, all the way from upmarket Tamboerskloof to the Bo-Kaap, and has an uninterrupted view of Table Mountain. The site, which was last used as an ammunition magazine in World War II, is managed by the Department of Public Works. 

People slowly began moving to the land in 1995. Since then, about 40 families of artists and crafters, environmental activists, organic vegetable growers, car guards and waste pickers have set up shacks and moved into the disused buildings. The community held a weekly Sunday market selling art, juice, crafts and vegetables for years, but it was shut down in 2018 by public works on the grounds that National Treasury regulations do not allow “unauthorised” markets on state-owned land. The City of Cape Town cut off the electricity in 2020 and the military moved a platoon of soldiers back to the site.

22 February 2018: Abandoned military buildings on Erf 81 have been repurposed by organic gardeners and artists. (Photograph by Chris de Beer-Procter)

The soldiers have imposed a 10pm curfew. Arriving home later, residents who work as car guards find themselves locked out and often shout for help from barista and organic vegetable gardener Unathi Dyantyi and his partner, Zintle Hashe. The couple lives in the room closest to the gate and do not get much sleep as a result of the pleas. 

“Some of us work late and some of us just go out, because we are free. But they are trying to install military law here. We are living in agony and fear,” said Dyantyi. “If you mention the law, some soldiers see you as trying to put them in their place. They say ‘Fuck your rights’,” added Hashe.

The defence department recently banned all media from the site, with queries having to be directed to Captain Courtenay Hendricks of the military logistics school at Youngsfield. He asked for the purpose of the story, then instructed that requests be made to the department spokesperson and other staff, who did not reply. New Frame’s reporter was ejected from the site twice and one New Frame photographer was stopped and made to delete his photographs.

17 October 2018: Zintle Hashe, who still lives at Erf 81, ran a Sunday market there. Residents sold juice, art and vegetables until it was shut down by Public Works. (Photograph by Barry Christianson)

No way to live

Dyantyi and Hashe run a vegetable garden on a tiny patch of land. They said some soldiers are pleasant and polite – those who wear name tags are often the ones who interact respectfully with the residents, while those who do not are often abusive. Since the soldiers work in four shifts of six hours a day, Dyantyi and Hashe never know who will guard the gate, leaving them in a state of anxiety. Both said they had been assaulted by male soldiers, but a 2021 military ombud report dismissed this, saying no charges had been laid.

The report, drawn up after a formal complaint by Hashe, agreed that soldiers would reduce the amount of noise they make and that future claims of harassment would be investigated. Since the military ombud’s decision, the soldiers have stopped parking their truck and making fires at night outside the couple’s window. But the curfew and bans on visitors remain an issue. “They say to us, ‘Beyond 10pm, we don’t take your shit,’” said Dyantyi.

Residents can no longer use a toilet near the gate at night because soldiers have put mattresses inside it to sleep at night, said Hashe. “It was really uncomfortable going to the toilet with armed men just outside the door,” she added.

13 April 2022: Media have been banned from Erf 81 and organic vegetable farmer and barista Unathi Dyantyi had to be photographed outside the front gate. (Photograph by Chris de Beer-Procter)

Dyantyi said the soldiers also put waste picker residents under pressure to sell them items at a lower price. “Waste pickers are forced to put everything out on the road to be searched. This is Tamboerskloof, there is good rubbish. Rich people will dump iPhone earphones or clothing or décor items. People are afraid. They think they must do what the soldiers tell them even if it means shrinking their dignity,” he said.

Three residents spoke on condition of anonymity, saying that the soldiers would restrict their movements further if they identified themselves. “Whenever soldiers see me, they tell me the eviction case is next week and then I must fokof from here,” said one person. However, there is no current eviction application before the court. A 2019 application by the Tamboerskloof Residents’ Association was rejected by the court on the basis that only the landowner could apply for an eviction order.

“I try to stay out of the soldiers’ way and come home early,” said another person. “Probably some of the top defence guys are working with property developers for this land. Their attitude has nothing to do with the government needing this land for any useful purpose.” Another resident said if anything is written about the soldiers’ behaviour it would create a backlash against the whole community.

An equal community

Sculptor Dirk Winterbach, 70, lives inside a magazine in which, 90 years ago, ammunition was stored. It has only one tiny window that hardly lets in any light, leaving him in darkness since the electricity was cut off. “We did everything we could to appease the city council, saying we are willing to pay for electricity. But they are not interested, they don’t care. There is this silence. We cannot get to talk formally with the department of public works and now, with the military, we don’t even know who to talk to,” said Winterbach.

He said if the defence department was willing to meet with the residents, he would tell them that Erf 81 is one of the few stable and equal communities in South Africa where different races and nationalities live together and interact as neighbours. “This is new in terms of social relations. We are not a glamorous community, but we are all equal. What is happening here is not highly valued, but it is very, very valuable. I want the government to realise what they will be destroying if this community is torn up by the roots,” said Winterbach.

The military ombud’s report pointed out that the community occupies only 2% of Erf 81. Dyantyi said it would be very easy for the government to share the huge piece of land with its current residents.

Defence department spokesperson Siphiwe Dlamini promised to reply to questions sent by email, but did not.

Undated: Sculptor and Erf 81 resident Dirk Winterbach says the occupied land is one of the few communities in South Africa where people from different races live together as neighbours. (Photograph courtesy of Erf81 Facebook page)

The City’s mayoral committee member for energy, Beverley van Reenen, said the electricity was cut off because of “safety reasons”, but would not say what these were. She added that the City had told public works to get a certificate of compliance and pay a reconnection fee if it wanted the electricity reconnected.

Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand, said municipalities are obliged to provide basic services to informal settlement households even on land they do not own. They should also follow the guidelines of the national Upgrading of Informal Settlements Programme (UISP), which emphasise that shacks should be upgraded to houses in situ if the site is suitable for housing.

The City’s mayoral committee member for human settlements, Malusi Booi, said as the city does not own the land, it has no plans to build houses for Erf 81’s residents there. But Huchzermeyer said municipalities cannot make a decision beforehand not to apply the UISP. 

Referring to a 2016 judgment in the high court in Johannesburg that ordered the City to provide basic services to all residents of Slovo Park, she said: “The Melani judgment, which does not bind provinces other than Gauteng but must be used as guidance, found that municipalities are obliged to apply for UISP funding for all informal settlements.” 

Undated: Erf 81 has a number of thriving vegetable gardens and chicken coops and plenty of outdoor space for children to play. (Photograph courtesy of Erf81 Facebook page)
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