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Cape Town - Images reminiscent of a war zone have elicited outrage from South Africans, as a shack demolition unfolded near the Strand.
Social media took the unfolding drama viral as black smoke billowed in the sky, rubber bullets rebounded off the tarmac and stun grenades echoed in the streets of Nomzamo, adjacent to the historic hostel township of Lwandle.
An eviction five months in the making was met with fury as a court-appointed sheriff rolled into Lwandle on Monday to flatten shacks built on land designated for the rerouting of the N2.
Residents and police clashed. Rocks were thrown, rubber bullets shot, small fires lit in the street and stun grenades lobbed into the crowds.
But as the skirmish progressed, the crowds began to thin out, the last rioters were tackled to the ground, their faces wet with yellow pepper spray.
Seven men were arrested for public violence, police spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Andre Traut said, and three petrol bombs were confiscated.
“They will appear in court where they will be officially charged.”
But the sight of now homeless residents on a damp winter day – especially women with children – prompted fury among many South Africans. One tweeted that the scenes were “another demonstration of SA’s contempt for the poor”.
Another protested: “As if people choose to be poor!”
And: “I cannot believe the apartheid-style shack demolitions.”
Social commentator Rebecca Davis described as heartbreaking the images of residents pleading for their shacks not to be demolished.
Western Cape Premier Helen Zille tweeted: “Neither the province nor the city received prior notice of this eviction. Sanral and the national minister must provide answers.”
By late in the afternoon, peace had returned, but many residents were left to pick up the pieces of their homes, salvaging what they could before they were flattened.
The contested site is home to perhaps 150 shack dwellings, but only about 20 were destroyed in Monday’s enforcement of the court order obtained by landowner Sanral.
With more shacks set to be taken apart later, residents were in a race against time to find a place to stay as temperatures dropped in the township on Monday night.
The SA Roads Agency (Sanral), which owns the land, said it had applied for a court interdict preventing any invasion on the property in January after the first set of shacks had been unlawfully erected.
“The court order was contravened on numerous occasions, forcing us to obtain the services of the sheriff and members of the police to evict the illegal invaders on the property,” spokesman Vusi Mona said.
Mona said the violence was regrettable. But, according to the company, the evictions were for the greater good since the land would allow it to maintain the roads through the rerouting of the N2 highway, as per the agency’s mandate.
Later on Monday, the City of Cape Town explained it was not involved, and detailed the history of the saga.
Mayoral committee member for human settlements Siyabulela Mamkeli said city law enforcement agencies were present, “on the specific request from the sheriff of the court and the police”.
But, “this particular case involves a private eviction – from Sanral land, not public, city-owned land – thus city law enforcement has no role in the removal of structures”.
However, the city had repeatedly urged Sanral to protect its land against the continual and new land invasions.
“As the land in question is privately owned, by Sanral, the city has not been responsible for policing these informal settlements. Sanral appointed a private company to ensure that no further growth of the settlements takes place, but new structures have continued to be built on the Sanral-owned land,” said Mamkeli.
Also, because the settlements were on private land, the city could not provide services without the consent of the land owner.
“Previously, as part of our commitment to building a caring city, the city offered to provide a certain number of container toilets in the settlements, which Sanral allowed. These toilets have unfortunately been vandalised and damaged beyond repair.
“The ward councillors requested that the city provide additional services. The city has, in an effort to provide services and interim relief to these residents, provided services on the periphery of city-owned land, adjacent to Sanral’s property,” Mamkeli said.
Amid the chaos of Monday morning, individual stories of vulnerability surfaced – like that of Simanyene High Grade 12 pupil Anelise Mange, 17, who returned from school to try to rescue her family’s entire household. With urgency, yet calm, she threw each item out through their front door, before loading herself up and hurling the contents to safety on the far side of a roll of razorwire.
Last came her study notes.
“I’m meant to be writing exams,” she said quietly.
In the end, the demolition teams pulled out without touching her home – only those of many of her neighbours – for reasons still unclear to residents.
Another resident Ntombikhona Somni’s hands were filthy as she scratched through the wreck of her demolished home. She eventually found what she was looking for – her three-year-old child Iminathi’s little soccer shoes.
Rain had turned the plot where her home had stood on Monday morning to mud. As she fled from the chilly north-westerly wind and rain, she dragged a dirty plastic container carrying her only possessions.
“I don’t know where we are going to sleep tonight.”
At sunset, the air was filled with the relentless tap of hammers on nails, as men banded together to work on each others’ homes.
Nomkita Tlale worked frantically to rebuild her shack as darkness fell. Her 10-month-old daughter Pinky sat under a makeshift shelter not far away, exposed to the weather.
Sanral, a court and perhaps even the constitution may all be telling her the home is illegal.
But it’s the only one she and her infant have.