Lives at stake as suburb burns

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Residents of Durban Deep in Roodepoort block Main Reef Road during last weeks protests. Picture: Matthews Baloyi

The war over Durban Deep is, at its heart, against capital and perhaps the collaboration between capital and politics, writes Janet Smith.

Johannesburg - There are wide black scars on Main Reef Road at the junction with Durban Deep, Roodepoort. Burnt tyres, discarded wheel guards, small piles of stones and charred tree trunks and branches lie abandoned.

It’s quiet there when the day draws to a close, but just over a week ago, this intersection was full of angry people with a lot to lose. If you shut out the noise of 2014, you might have thought you were in the South Africa of the early 1990s.

Billowing smoke tumbled into the air off piles of debris. Fists were hoisted as the crowd toyi-toyied, tired feet the percussion to songs about freedom. Placards raged.

Snap back to 2014 and, if you were in the snarl being diverted from the protest, you would surely have thought of only two words: service delivery. Radio traffic reports summarised a familiar sight. But this was no so-called service delivery. This protest – which resulted in the death of a young man, allegedly at the hand of a policeman – was different.

It was about evictions, a subject that has deeply affected generations of black South Africans. Although Durban Deep is not going to see forced removals, there are tens of thousands around the country still affected by families torn apart after violent dispossessions under apartheid. Entire communities were destroyed, hopes of having a permanent home shattered and human rights completely ignored. But while the intention of last Thursday’s protest against evictions was the same as those of decades ago – for people to protect the little they have and stand up against discrimination – there was an essential difference.

The war over Durban Deep is, at its heart, against capital and perhaps the collaboration between capital and politics. Either way, it threatens to bring an end to a community’s existence.

The placards raged not at a political party, but at the developers: “Dino Properties U found us here we going no way.” “Dino stop bullying us.” “Give us our place back.” The company’s plan since it bought the land from miner DRD Gold, is to build at least 14 000 new houses in a massive low-income residential development project conceptually not unlike Cosmo City. But that development north of Joburg was different to the one at Durban Deep in that many of the residents were moved there from surrounding informal settlements, and some were given fully subsidised houses.

Durban Deep may, instead, look more like the dispute unfolding in Comet Village in Boksburg where an old mining community has become the centre of a land dispute that may see residents who have lived there for decades evicted by development company Living Africa Properties.

Yet it is the Cosmo City example which may have filtered into the consciousness – not only of people living in the old mine village and at the two former hostels at Durban Deep, those being the only parts of the area that now belong to Dino Properties. Rumours are rife in the community that the shacklands around Bramfischerville, which borders the old DRD Gold property, as well as Sol Plaatje, Matholesville, Dunuza and other settlements there, could be moved.

But Dino Properties’ attorney Greg Vermaak says this is simply not true.

“The old mining village is overwhelmingly not hostels but suburban type houses. There are no informal settlements on my client’s property which I am aware of.”

He says the residents who received notice to vacate their houses a year ago are tenants, “not old mine occupiers”, and, as of Saturday, they will be living on the company’s land illegally.

“It’s a normal situation. Tenants, of whom there are millions in this country, pay their rent every month and at a stage the lease may be terminated. These aren’t squatters that invaded the land through desperation. These are people who entered this with their eyes wide open, with leases.

“Those who occupy the hostels may be a slightly different story. They may be able to demonstrate poverty. There’s a higher chance, but that’s pure conjecture. The residents received a notice terminating their leases and telling them that at a certain stage they would have to vacate the property, and that time was extended at their request and by agreement to the end of January.”

And so Dino Properties now intends to commence eviction proceedings, despite the protests and the death of Tshepo Babuseng .

“Private property rights are still enforceable,” says Vermaak. “An eviction order has to be obtained during which time the right of the occupiers to claim alternative accommodation elsewhere will be explored. But the obligation to do this, which is very constrained, vests in the authorities – local government – not the landowners.

“In that mantra lies the truth of the matter.”

None of this seems to matter to many people who have been living in and around Durban Deep for years. Up to 3 000 could be affected by the development, some of them expecting to lose the place they call home. And that fear could well see them lobby other disaffected people to protest – even those who don’t fall into Dino Properties’ count.

There are far too many reasons for poor communities like this one to take their fury onto the streets. Unemployment, crime, hunger and now, the threat of losing the one salvation – a roof over their heads.

Durban Deep last saw crowbars in 2007 when the hated Red Ants were sent to demolish shacks. Violence closed in, and that’s likely to happen again. Only, this time, the stakes seem so much higher.

* Janet Smith is executive editor of The Star.

The Star


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