Johannesburg – The South Gauteng High Court has ruled it is unconstitutional for police to conduct search and seizures on private homes without a court-sanctioned warrant.
Monday's judgment came after a series of often-violent raids in the Joburg CBD on "hijacked buildings" – properties illegally seized by rogue landlords and rented to low-income tenants – between June 2017 and May 2018.
Police had argued in court intelligence had revealed at the time that the Hillbrow, Berea and Joubert Park areas had extraordinarily high incidents of serious and violent crimes such as murder, armed robbery, assault with the intent to do grievous bodily harm, as well as "smash and grabs".
Those crimes, police argued, were prevalent in the immediate vicinity of dilapidated buildings occupied by people without the consent of the owners and, in certain instances, "hijacked" by people who unlawfully collected rent from those who occupied the buildings.
They also argued violent criminals were using the buildings as places of refuge and hide-outs.
The search and seizure operations were carried out by police officers, assisted by officers of the Johannesburg Metropolitan Police Department and officials of the Department of Home Affairs, where illegal immigrants were found and arrested.
The Socio-Economic Rights Institute (SERI) of South Africa, a housing rights charity, which represented 3 000 residents living in 11 buildings, gathered testimonies about the police raids during which residents had their doors broken down, property damaged or removed and were forced out onto the street at night.
An elderly woman said she was forced to undress in front of a metro police officer who refused to leave the room in order to allow her to change out of her nightdress while a community leader was frog-marched out of one of the buildings in only his underwear.
The court said police raids had been carried out under the legislation "in a manner that was cruel, humiliating, degrading and invasive".
They were ostensibly also directed at harassing and intimidating the applicants into vacating the so-called "hijacked buildings" on the pretext the buildings were bought by new owners.
Members of the police and the JMPD threatened some of the applicants with eviction and took photos of their water and electricity connections.
"They also vandalised and destroyed some of their homes. Some of the applicants’ possessions including money were stolen during the raids. None of the applicants consented to the search of their homes," the judgment reads.
"This is a major step in the right direction in making sure that all are equal before law, not just those living in affluent suburbs," said Khululiwe Bhengu from Seri.
"This brings a sense of comfort to inner-city residents that they are safe in their homes, especially during the lockdown," Bhengu told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
Police were also ordered to pay R1 500 each to the 3 000 residents as compensation for the loss of their property and the wrong they had suffered.
Police spokesman Vish Naidoo said the police service was "seriously considering opposing (the judgment)", but did not comment on accusations of violence and heavy-handedness.