Violent evictions of South African shack dwellers continue amid lockdown

Despite the moratorium on evictions, the government stands by as violent demolitions continue to take place and leave communities vulnerable and without homes

April 25, 2020 by Pavan Kulkarni
The Azania Occupation in Cato Manor, Durban, under attack by Calvin & Family Security and the Durban Metro Police. Photo: Abahlali baseMjondolo

The South African government continues to turn a blind eye to the notorious eThekwini municipality which, despite the moratorium on evictions during lockdown, has continued to demolish shacks in the informal settlements of Durban and surrounding towns. Hundreds among the poorest of South Africans have been left homeless in the course of this week alone.

The evictions have forced many families to take refuge in the woods and others on city streets. Those who have been on the streets face the added risk of police repression as they are technically violating the rules of the lockdown which require everyone to stay home. Several evicted shack dwellers have already been arrested for this.

Before, when they lived in the settlement, the personnel of the same police force – along with those from the private firm, Calvin & Family Security – assisted the municipality in demolishing their homes.

The shack dwellers movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM), has also alleged that soldiers from the army – which were deployed to assist the police in enforcing the lockdown – were also present in many of these evictions and demolitions, which have become increasingly violent.

The eKhenana Land Occupation in Cato Crest, Durban, has just been attacked by Calvin & Family Security and the Anti-Land Invasion Unit. The eThekwini Metro police were also present. Photo: Abahlali baseMjondolo

On April 22, live ammunition was used during the demolition at the eKhenana settlement in Cato Cresto, Durban, which houses 109 families. Later in the evening that day, Azania settlement, in the area of Cato Manor, located in the city center, was also attacked.

An inhabitant of the Azania Occupation was injured in the attack by Calvin Family Security. Photo: Abahlali baseMjondolo

Over the last year, the Azania settlement has faced well over 40 attacks, during which many have been injured. Often the building materials – mostly corrugated tin sheets and tarpaulin – are burnt down after demolitions to prevent them from being used for rebuilding.

29 women from this settlement, left homeless on the street after a previous attack last week, were arrested by the police for contravening the lockdown. “Their crime was to sleep on open ground after their homes had been destroyed by Calvin & Family Security,” AbM said in a statement.

Since Sunday, with repeated attacks on three consecutive days, 83 other homes had already been destroyed in another settlement on S’fiso Ngcobo land occupation in Hillcrest, about 30 kilometers from Durban center.

“When our homes are destroyed, we are made more vulnerable to coronavirus and rape,” said AbM’s women’s league in a statement last night. “Our phones and money are also stolen during these evictions. How are we supposed to care for our children when we have to sleep in the bushes and live with no money and no phones to call for help?”

Exposure to the violence during these evictions are also impacting the children living in these settlements, who “are beyond traumatized when they see their only homes being demolished. They are full of fear and anxiety when they see their parents being brutally attacked and hunted with live ammunition like wild animals.” Women are often sexually harassed by the personnel carrying out the demolitions.

The Moratorium on evictions exist only on paper

The South African government had imposed a moratorium on all evictions during the lockdown period, after coming under enormous pressure from AbM and numerous domestic and international social justice and health rights organizations. However, the moratorium appears to only exist on paper, as the government has been a mere onlooker and refuses to intervene to stop these evictions.

These evictions, AbM has argued, not only violate the moratorium applicable to the lockdown period, but also the Prevention of Illegal Eviction from an Unlawful Occupation of Land Act, whose Section 8(1) mandates that no eviction, even of an “unlawful occupier”, can be carried out without a court order.

None of these evictions had been backed by a court order. In fact, the 109 families in eKhenana settlement had secured an order from the Durban High Court in February 2019, interdicting illegal evictions by Ethekwini Municipality.

Due to the relentless continuation of evictions amid the lockdown, earlier this month AbM yet again approached multiple High Courts that have jurisdiction over regions where the demolitions have been taking place.

On April 18, the Western Cape High Court ruled in favor of AbM, deeming the Cape Town municipality’s demolition of shacks in eMpolweni settlement in Khayelitsha informal township to be an “illegal eviction”, and allowing the residents to rebuild their shacks.

However, the High Court of Durban, which has jurisdiction over eThekwini Municipality, took the side of the authorities, by accepting the municipality’s argument that it was not carrying evictions, but was demolishing new shacks that were built and not yet occupied.

AbM maintained that the so-called “new” shacks were not additional structures built by new residents who had come to occupy the land recently, but were the ones that were rebuilt after illegal demolitions of shacks where residents have been living since February 2019. Nevertheless, this did not convince the judge, who allowed eThekwini Municipality to continue its demolitions.

With neither the government nor the court stepping in to protect these shack-dwellers, the Women’s League of AbM has called for the solidarity of women across the world to condemn the South African government’s treatment of the most vulnerable of its urban poor.

“We need to stop the flow of blood running like a river through our homes. We need to be allowed to grow our children in peace. We need to abolish evictions,” it’s statement concluded.