Clamping down on illegal evictions
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Forceful eviction is a flagrant disregard for the rule of law and our Constitution. Landlords’ systematic unlawful actions are displacing tenants and rendering some homeless.
When a tenant is in breach of the lease agreement, the law provides legal remedies. A breach is not a criminal act, but actions in the various forms of self-help or quick-fix solutions are unlawful, bordering on the criminal. There are several social justice movements and other non-governmental organisations in South Africa that work with the poor and vulnerable urban tenants, people from informal settlements and rural areas, helping them enforce their rights and protect their dignity.
As a result of the global Covid-19 pandemic, governments, in an unprecedented move, have issued declarations or are advancing laws to stop evictions. San Francisco and San Jose in California have placed a moratorium on evictions and Singapore and Italy introduced policies to protect the homeless. Losing income due to the Covid-19 virus means losing housing and possibly becoming homeless. Following Singapore and Italy, cities across the US are freezing evictions, deferring disconnection of basic services and suspending foreclosures. Ndifuna Ukwazi released a joint statement with more than 20 social justice organisations working with poor, working-class and vulnerable people, calling on President Cyril Ramaphosa and the Covid-19 National Command Council to end the issuing and execution of all eviction orders.
Ndifuna Ukwazi (NU), based in Cape Town, an activist organisation and law centre, is part of Reclaim the City, a social movement of tenants and workers struggling with access to land and affordable housing. NU provides free legal services to the poor and individuals who cannot afford it.
Sections of the statement below, sent to the president and the Covid-19 National Command Council, form part of the 19 points that highlight the concern for the vulnerable and the need for the government to intervene:
“In the face of an unprecedented threat caused by the Covid-19 we, as movements and organisations working with and in support of the working class, poor and vulnerable, call for a moratorium on the issuing and execution of eviction orders, and other attempts anywhere in the country to remove people from where they live during the declared state of disaster. This follows recent examples set by New York State, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Spain and other cities and states throughout the globe in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
“In our context, we call on the National Command Council and relevant ministers to urgently implement this moratorium on evictions and other means of displacement, in terms of their powers under section 10(8)(c) of Government Gazette No. 43107 (issued on March 18, 2020) to ‘take any other steps that may be necessary to address, prevent an escalation of the national state of disaster, or to alleviate, contain and minimise the effects of the national state of disaster’.
“Those facing eviction have an added layer of vulnerability to the health risks posed by Covid-19, where eviction would lead to homelessness. Urgent attention must be given to those who have nowhere else to go; those facing life on the streets and those in emergency alternative accommodation living in conditions that could foster the spread of Covid-19.
“President Ramaphosa, in his address on March 15, advised the nation to take certain precautions to curb the spread of Covid-19. Yet, it is unfortunate that those actions presupposed a level of privilege and access to basic amenities that many do not have. Groups experiencing heightened vulnerability include people living in informal settlements with strained (if any) access to communal basic services, people living in occupied buildings, people living on commercial farms, homeless people and those facing homelessness and displacements as a result of eviction (both legal and illegal).
“The current ‘business-as-usual’ response does not consider the communicable nature of Covid-19. One cannot practice physical distancing should you find yourself and your belongings on the side of the road or in an open space and exposed to the public with no means of protection. One cannot practice a heightened level of hygiene by washing hands in the recommended manner where the only access to water is a communal standpipe and shared ablution facilities.
“Research worldwide has shown that homelessness is closely linked to exposure to infectious diseases, specifically respiratory illnesses such as tuberculosis and immunodeficiency. Covid-19 is no exception.”
Dr Sayed Iqbal Mohamed is the chairperson of the Organisation of Civic Rights and deputy chairperson of the KZN Rental Housing Tribunal. He writes in his personal capacity.