Army brought in to aid illegal evictions in South Africa, several left homeless amid lockdown

The Azania shack dwellers’ settlement of Abahlali baseMjondolo in Durban, was attacked by agents hired by the eThekwini municipality authorities on April 2. 15 shacks were demolished, leaving several people homeless

April 03, 2020 by Pavan Kulkarni

The Azania shack dwellers’ settlement of Cato Manor, Durban, was attacked by agents hired by the eThekwini municipality authorities on April 2, Thursday. 15 shacks were demolished, leaving several people homeless at a time when a lockdown has been imposed by the South African government and people have been ordered to stay home. Many shack dwellers were also injured in the attack.

A private security agency, Calvin Security, was used by the municipality for the demolitions on Thursday. The army and the police, ordered to assist in the implementation of the lockdown, were also involved in the illegal evictions. This is not the first eviction reported during the lockdown period.

The South African government had ordered a moratorium on evictions during the lockdown under enormous pressure from social justice organizations and the country’s largest shack-dwellers’ movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM). 

This moratorium was first mentioned by justice minister Ronald Lamola in his address ahead of the lockdown. It was then reiterated in the written directive issued by the ministry under the Disaster Management Act on March 26, a day before the lockdown began. 

However, the next afternoon, on March 27, four vehicles of Calvin Security attacked the Ekuphumuleni settlement in Durban. Acting at the behest of the eThekwini municipality authorities, the private security guards demolished eight shacks built by members of the AbM with no support from the government. Another 17 shacks were marked “AbM” for further demolitions. The settlement has come under attacks prior to lockdown as well.

Representing AbM, lawyers from Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa (Seri) wrote a letter to the municipality on March 28, demanding a written undertaking from them and Calvin Security, ensuring they “will not evict our clients with or without an order of court, in line with directions issued by the Minister of Justice and Correctional Services.”

The letter to the municipality also stated that Section 26(3) of the South African constitution as well as Section 8(1) of the Prevention of Illegal Eviction from and Unlawful Occupation of Land Act mandate that no eviction, even of an “unlawful occupier”, can be carried out without a court order.

No court order was produced for the demolitions on Thursday, making the exercise illegal even without the lockdown in place. 

“Should we not receive this written undertaking”, the letter further warned, “we are instructed to approach the high court for urgent relief. In the event that this becomes  necessary, costs will be sought, on a punitive scale, against the municipality and Calvin Security Services.”

However, in a brazen move, Calvin Security was sent by the municipality again the very next day, on March 29, to demolish five more homes. 

eThekwini municipality spokesperson Msawakhe Mayisela has defended the municipality’s actions by saying, “The 21-day lockdown does not mean that lawlessness should prevail.” He further said that the municipality “does not conduct evictions but demolish[es] unoccupied structures built illegally.. The demolitions were within the ambits of the law. “

However, AbM members rendered homeless by the demolitions have strongly objected to their homes being considered “unoccupied structures”. 

The ministry of housing had released a press statement yesterday stating that the housing minister Lindiwe Sisulu “was informed of ongoing evictions, including in the Ethekwini Metro. The minister has appealed for the practice to be halted, and instead.. [asked] the municipalities and private property owners to prioritise measures aimed at curbing the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

However, within hours of the statement, the Azania settlement in Cato Manor, seven kilometers from Durban city center, was attacked by Calvin Security guards, this time with the assistance of the police and the army, who have been ordered by president Cyril Ramaphosa to enforce the lockdown. Numerous AbM members were injured in the attack.

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“[W]e are not surprised,” said the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) in a statement extending solidarity to AbM.

“After all, Ramaphosa still has blood on his hands from the massacre of thirty-four mineworkers at Marikana in 2012. We must never forget that President Ramaphosa and the ANC he leads chose to protect the profits of the elite mine bosses, and sacrificed the lives of mineworkers at Marikana who were simply demanding a better life and improved living conditions.”

NUMSA has criticized the government’s response to the crisis and demanded necessary protections for the vulnerable along with the nationalization of healthcare to ensure accessibility for all. The union alleges that, instead, the government has “deployed the army and the police onto the streets to respond to a virus and criminalize the poor and the destitute.”

Arguing that these attacks on informal settlements are part of a broader and systematic assault by the ANC government against the South African working class in the interests of large capitalists, NUMSA has called for a class struggle. 

“The only way we can end the suffering of the working class is through class struggle. We must create class consciousness in the working class so that they can act in unity to overthrow the capitalist system which has normalized hunger and homelessness for the poor,” NUMSA said.

Meanwhile, the demolitions have come despite AbM’s repeated appeals to the central government to restrain the “rogue” municipality. The shack-dwellers movement has warned in strong words, “If the national government cannot bring this rogue municipality to order we will have no choice but to make our own arrangements to defend ourselves from these ongoing attacks.”

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