Johannesburg - A court has delivered a scathing judgment against the City of Joburg for the unconstitutional, “disrespectful and demeaning” manner in which its police officers removed homeless people living underneath a bridge in the CBD.
The city has been ordered to pay the group of about 27 homeless people R1500 each, totalling R40500.
Though it could not declare the removal an eviction because no structures were destroyed, the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) ruled that the officers acted unlawfully by removing and destroying property belonging to the homeless group.
The group, which included men and women, had made a home for themselves on a traffic island under the R31 highway bridge on End Street.
Most of them lived from collecting recyclable material, making between R350 and R1000 a month.
Supported by Lawyers for Human Rights, they approached the SCA to appeal an earlier ruling by the South Gauteng High Court that went in favour of the city.
Officers of the Joburg metro police department descended on the traffic island in a convoy of official vehicles on February 1, 2017 and confiscated their belongings.
These included cardboard boxes, blankets, identity documents, mattresses, clothes and food.
“They hurled insults at the applicants, and kicked and sprayed some of them with pepper spray in a bid to drive them away from the location,” Judge Mandisa Maya said in the ruling delivered yesterday.
“They then loaded all the applicants' belongings on the trucks and took them away.”
The operation, described by officials as a clean-up, was unconstitutional and unlawful, Judge Maya ruled.
“What is clear however, is that the confiscation and destruction of the applicants' property was a patent, arbitrary deprivation thereof and a breach of their right to privacy enshrined in section 14(c) of the constitution, 'which includes the right not to have their possessions seized'.
“The conduct of the city personnel was not only a violation of the applicants' property rights in their belongings, but also disrespectful and demeaning.
“This obviously caused them distress and was a breach of their right to have their inherent dignity respected and protected.
“In the circumstances, the city's conduct must be declared inconsistent with the constitution and therefore unlawful,” Judge Maya said.
The court saw the footage of the operation taken by activist Nigel Branken. It showed him remonstrating against the removal of the homeless people's possessions.
One officer replied to Branken that: “These people are occupying a space which is not theirs."
“The footage also showed the officials indiscriminately gathering and throwing mattresses, blankets, bulging suitcases, bags and rucksacks into a truck without checking their contents,” Judge Maya said.
In addition to declaring the police's conduct unconstitutional, the judge ordered the city to pay the affected people R1500 as compensation for their destroyed property.
“The amount of R1500 for each applicant, R40500, is not a large sum of money. But, in my view, it constitutes appropriate relief in the specific circumstances of this case.
“It will vindicate the constitution and protect the applicants and others similarly situated against violations of their rights to dignity and property,” the judge said.