Cape battles land grabbers
Cape Town - As she watched her shack being demolished, Nosiphiwe Mthathi, looking tired after spending the night erecting the little dwelling, said: “I had no other choice but to build here”.
It is a statement echoed by many of the thousands who have decided to grab private or city land near the Cape’s townships. It’s last-ditch effort to escape from expensive rent, dirty conditions and overcrowding, adds the Enkanini resident.
Land invasions have become a common sight. In the past year alone, the city’s department of human settlements has documented 21 invasions in nine areas, including Philippi, Strand, Dunoon, Khayelitsha, Mitchells Plain, Wallacedene, Browns Farm, Lwandle and Lavender Hill.
The land grab has sparked violence as authorities clashed with residents.
Rocks, stun grenades, rubber bullets, hammers and even spades have become the ammunition of a back-and-forth conflict.
Authorities say they need to uphold the constitution and protect the land owners. But squatters say they just need a roof over their heads, something which local government has “failed to provide”.
In Marikana, a sprawling informal settlement that grew from just a few shacks erected on private land in Philippi back in 2003, tensions have been mounting.
For weeks authorities have moved into the township to demolish “uninhabited” shacks, with residents quickly gathering materials and rebuilding the dwellings overnight.
There have been riots and there have even been unconfirmed reports that police used live ammunition. Some residents have been evicted as many as a dozen times, says Tumi Ramahlele.
When asked why people continued to risk their livelihoods to grab land, the Marikana resident and community leader said they had “no other choice”.
“These people are coming from rural areas. There is poverty there and facilities are non-existent. Coming to the Western Cape is a chance for a job, to provide for the people back home.”
Ramahlele said on arrival they struggled. Social grants were swallowed up by hungry families and renting backyard dwellings cost too much.
“It is not our first choice to move onto this land,” he added. “But when we have tried everything, marching to Parliament with no result, and we see that this land is vacant, we decide to govern ourselves.
“We will not move,” he warned.
“It would seem that people are coming mainly from backyards where they say they are paying exorbitant rent,” said mayoral committee member for human settlements Siyabulela Mamkeli.
“(But) there is no excuse for illegal actions. The city will continue to uphold the values contained in the constitution. This includes respect for the dignity of all, compliance with the rule of law at all times, and preventing queue jumping by those who illegally invade land,” he wrote in an email.
He added that at times squatters had invaded land set aside for housing.
The city established the anti-land invasion unit in 2009 to prevent illegal occupation of city and provincial land. The unit has been closely involved in the recent Marikana evictions after it was brought in to assist police execute a court order to demolish “uninhabited” dwellings on private land.
Mayoral committee member for safety and security JP Smith said a structure was only deemed inhabited after furniture had been moved inside and the family had slept overnight. He said that in most areas, land invasions were spearheaded by “opportunists”. However, in Marikana, he has frequently claimed the most recent land grab was politically motivated.
“Blaming a third force is a pretty common accusation from politicians, whether DA or ANC,” said Children of South Africa founder Jared Sacks.
“Every time there is a land occupation or large protests or roads being blocked, Smith and others in the city immediately claim they are politically motivated. It is a way of delegitimising the actions of poor people who are desperate for something better. It also has the effect of maintaining the widespread belief that poor people can’t think and act logically for themselves.”
Sacks has worked closely with residents in Marikana and has been a vocal critic of the way the city has handled evictions in the past.
He said the occupation of the land had nothing to do with the ANC or Ses’Khona People’s Rights Movement.
“They’re desperate. They don’t need to be instigated or manipulated.”
Sacks said the city had failed to address the housing crisis in Cape Town.
“Yes, legally the right to property is enshrined in the constitution. However, the right to housing and various other rights such as dignity are also enshrined in the constitution and legally take precedence over the right to property.”
He suggested the city should purchase the land and formalise such settlements or make other land available.
The land where Marikana first began to develop was bought for around R5m in 2003. The owner, Oscar Saunderson - a spokesman for many of the property owners in Philippi East who are battling with squatters - said his plan was to turn the land into an economic hub.
But invasions had turned it into a “time bomb”, he said.
“Every neighbourhood needs a mall, industrial park, residential and social developments. Without that you can not achieve healthy growth,” Saunderson said.
Invasions had turned Philippi into an even more unstable and fragile destination for any industrial warehousing, he said.
“The land was worth around R5m, and today it is not worth much. I am still liable for rates and taxes, I am the legal owner, but I can’t set foot on my own land.”
He and other private landowners in Philippi have an interdict from the Wynberg Magistrate’s Court preventing illegal occupation or trespassing on the land.
However, Saunderson said: “Eviction orders, interdicts and who knows what is not stopping the masses doing what they want. The police came to the party, but in many cases too late. Earlier reaction times would have helped.”
“What does the future hold for Philippi? Housing? I don’t know. As experts on this area, we know that jobs are pivotal to changing the neighbourhood for good.”
We’ll grab any open land - Ses’khona
Ses’Khona People’s Rights Movement leader Andile Lili has warned that his members would grab “any empty land they could find” if the city did not address the housing crisis.
The city has repeatedly linked the organisation to recent land invasions, primarily in Marikana, Philippi and Lwandle, where they accused its leadership of inciting violence and selling off private land to squatters.
Lili has denied these accusations.
He said mayor Patricia de Lille was panicking: “She can see we are growing more powerful. We are going to make sure the government of the DA is taken out of power. They have every right to panic.”
Last month, responding to assertions made by De Lille that the organisation was just an ANC proxy, Lili said, “This is a blatant lie.”
He claimed the organisation had strongholds in KwaZulu-Natal and Port Elizabeth.
He said he was tempted to tell his members to grab any open land they could find and start building shacks.
“The number of people we have right now will be uncontrollable for police and law enforcement? I am this close to making that call.”
At the Barry Streek memorial lecture last week De Lille accused Ses’Khona of being a front for the ANC.
- Cape Argus