By Lebogang Maile
In the past month alone, at least 100 people have lost their lives in informal settlements and hijacked buildings in Gauteng.
More than 70 people died when a fire raged through a municipal-owned building in Johannesburg CBD, five children died when a shack caught fire in the Itireleng informal settlement near Laudium in Pretoria, and a blaze in the Fleurhof informal settlement in Johannesburg claimed the lives of two more children.
While these tragic deaths made headlines here in South Africa and the rest of the world, the grim reality is that hundreds of South Africans and immigrants frequently die, are injured and lose their homes in Gauteng because they live on government-owned land that has been invaded and in unsafe buildings that are illegally occupied.
While Gauteng is the smallest province, it is the economic hub of the country. As a result, over 300,000 people migrate to the province annually. According to Statistics South Africa, it has the largest share of the South African population, with approximately 16.10 million people (26,6%) living in the province.
It also has the largest population of undocumented and documented immigrants in the country.
The consequences of this high level of migration, immigration and urbanisation is an increase in informal settlements on illegally invaded land and hijacked buildings. It is indisputable that the unlawful occupation of government land and property, whether by locals or foreigners, is a ticking time bomb.
Not only does this unlawful action place people’s lives in danger, it also impedes the delivery of services that have been earmarked for beneficiaries and communities such as housing, clinics, police stations and schools. This situation is exacerbated because municipalities do not have the capacity and resources to prevent the mushrooming of informal settlements or the hijacking of vacant buildings.
Another negative outcome is the increase in crime syndicates who prey on the most vulnerable and are only interested in wreaking havoc and lining their own pockets.
In Gauteng, illegal land occupation is rife, ongoing and often well-planned for various purposes such as jumping the queue, making money or destabilising government initiatives. The number of informal settlements has increased from 300 to over 720 since 2016.
Around 60 State properties are illegally occupied across the province. They include vacant sites where unlawful occupants have constructed structures such as residential housing units, shops, farm buildings, car wash businesses, restaurants and churches. At some sites, state properties are being illegally occupied, while at others they are unlawfully rented. The majority of government properties illegally occupied are in central Johannesburg corridor (about 25), followed by the northern corridor which covers the Tshwane area with around 23 State properties.
Contrary to much information in the public domain, the Gauteng government is not sitting on its hands. It has introduced a number of measures aimed at dealing with this scourge of criminality.
In my office, a rapid response team has been established to combat land grabs holistically with all stakeholders. It includes gathering intelligence on the ground and speaking to community members, community policing forums and the South African Police Service in areas deemed to be problematic.
The Department of Human Settlements has also started giving title deeds to beneficiaries in certain communities before their houses have been built. This has had a positive impact because would-be recipients now have a vested interest in ensuring that housing is delivered and fight off those wanting to invade state-owned land.
In addition, the provincial government has intensified the rollout of the Rapid Land Release Programme, which affords residents in need of serviced stands, to build houses for themselves.
The Gauteng government has gone to court to apply for eviction orders to move people illegally occupying buildings in Johannesburg, and is working with courts, developers and law enforcement agencies to get eviction orders and execute them as speedily as possible to prevent unlawful land grabs.
The Department of Infrastructure Development has deployed safety officers to guard vacant sites, and has introduced intensive security surveillance and monitoring of vulnerable buildings.
The departments have also embarked on community awareness initiatives. We all need to understand that unlawful occupations are one of the biggest threats to the provincial government’s developmental efforts in accomplishing proper urban management.
It is time that our citizens stop being passive recipients of government services and become active participants. Communities must come forward with any information on illegal occupations that may lead to the arrest of perpetrators.
Simply put, the unlawful occupation of state-owned land and buildings amounts to anarchy. It cannot not be tolerated by the provincial government nor Gauteng’s residents.
*Maile is Gauteng MEC for Human Settlements and Infrastructure Development
**The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of Independent Media or IOL