Lawyers for Human Rights advocate Jacob van Garderen addresses residents following the high court ruling. Picture: Zelda Venter/Pretoria News.

Pretoria - In a groundbreaking win for housing rights for the poor, the Gauteng High Court, Pretoria, said the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) cannot evict about 73 people and their dependents “through the back door” from the Marievale military base near Springs.

Although it was clear that the civilians were staying illegally on the base, the SANDF had to follow the law and the Constitution. They had to launch a proper eviction application if they wanted these families off the base, Judge Norman Davis on Wednesday said.

He said the SANDF had itself to blame for the situation, as it already in 2009 acknowledged that civilians had moved onto the base and that something had to be done about the situation.

The SANDF in a letter sent to the then minister of defence acknowledged that it cannot simply evict these people without a proper court order and it was said that a special task team would be established to ensure that the base again became the home of military personnel, while taking the rights of these civilians into account. 

Nothing ever came of this.

Judge Davis had some harsh words for the SANDF for allowing the situation to escalate over the years. 

“It is to me astounding how the SANDF, running a military base which the respondents (the military) counsel was keen to point out constituted critical military infrastructure, with a secure perimeter and controlled access, could have allowed the base to become a civilian village.”

The villagers meanwhile sang and danced outside court in joy after hearing the news that they could return to the base for the meantime.

Judge Davis ordered that pending the finalisation of whatever legal proceedings the SANDF may launch for the evictions of these people from Marievale Military Base, they must be allowed to return to the base.

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In so far as some of the houses may not be fit for habitation or have in the meantime been occupied by members of the SANDF,  the latter had to provide temporary adequate alternative accommodation to them.

He also ordered that the SANDF may not harass, threaten or intimidate these residents, nor may they restrict their movement to and from the military base.

His order was met with a spontaneous clapping of hands by those villagers who filled the public gallery in court.

Their plight were taken on by Lawyers for Human Rights, whose advocate, Jacob van Garderen, outside court explained to the cheering crowd that they have won the first battle. But he explained that they could be back in court soon, as the SANDF had indicated that it was considering appealing this judgment.

Women with babies on their back and men, however, were overjoyed at the prospect of returning to the base. Some of them have been living there for decades.

After they were illegally evicted in November last year, they were forced to move to a nearby makeshift shanty town, which the judge said was cynically called “Happy Village.” 

 They have no amenities here, but he SANDF told the court that “for humanitarian reasons” it provided these residents with water twice a day.

Judge Davis, as introduction to his judgment, said: “This is yet another one of those cases where organs of State have allowed a situation to develop to a point where a court of law is called upon to address an issue concerning the social well-being and dignity of people.

He said the statutory regime regarding state quarters inside a military base included that “under no circumstances are civilians authorised to rent or occupy military houses.”

Yet the SANDF allowed  civilians to move in when the Group 16 military unit shrank and more soldiers moved out. In this regard the SANDF admitted that “it was an oversight” on their part.

In November last year the military began to prepare for a training exercise. The training could no longer take place at the nearby training base at Heidelberg, as that base “depleted as there were no funds to renovate it.”

It was then decided that the training had to take place at Marievale, which in turn resulted in the forced removal of the civilians.

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