Hundreds of residents from Port Elizabeth’s Wells Estate watched helplessly as their shacks were flattened early yesterday after throngs of police vehicles and trucks entered the area.
Five people were arrested as they tried to prevent the demolition of their shacks on an illegally occupied piece of land.
While there was a heavy police presence around Wells Estate and the N2, with Cradock and East London police assisting their Port Elizabeth colleagues, the EFF pleaded with metro bosses to hold off on the evictions.
Raising an emotionally charged motion of exigency at a full council sitting yesterday, EFF councillor Zilindile Vena begged the municipality to handle the situation in a humane manner and find alternative land for the 60 displaced families.
“We are pleading with this council to take a political decision around the matter,” Vena said.
“I would like the council to listen to us. The reality is that those people were backyard shack dwellers. They moved to a vacant piece of land.
“We want all evictions to be carried out humanely, with the residents provided with alternative accommodation.
“The council must order the city manager to halt the evictions until there have been engagements with the affected communities.”
But his appeal came too late, as dozens of police arrived with the sheriff of the court at about 7am to act on a court order to break down the shacks.
As some of the residents tried to run into their shacks to salvage their belongings, they were allegedly ordered by the police to stand back or have rubber bullets fired at them.
The visibly distressed residents refused to comment initially, saying they were too afraid.
“Can’t you see we are being shot with rubber bullets here. The police are watching us,” one woman shouted.
Later, as it sank in that they would have to find a place to sleep last night, some agreed to talk as long as they were not identified.
One woman sobbed and said she had lost all her belongings.
The woman, 37, said she had been at a clinic when she received a call from neighbours telling her that her home had been flattened.
“I had a bed, couches and a small table which I used for cooking,” she said.
“When I got here, my shack was already demolished.
“The funny thing is that this is the furniture we received from the municipality when I lost seven family members in a shack fire in 2015.
“The municipality built a house [for us], but we are a family of six – that is why I decided to find my own place.
“I was tired of sleeping in the living room, but now I have no choice but to go back home.”
Another woman, 51, said her shack had been one of the first to be demolished.
“I saw a police convoy and we went after them to see what was happening,” she said.
“Then a police Nyala came with the bulldozer. My shack was the first one to be bulldozed.
“They did not even give me a chance to take my stuff. Instead, they threatened to shoot us if we came nearer to the shacks.
“I had to watch as my broken furniture was loaded onto the truck.
“No one is telling us where they are taking our material and what used to be our furniture.
“We are not fighting with anyone, but we want places that we can call home.
“I will have to squat with friends while I wait for my grant money so that I can buy material and rebuild my shack.”
Another resident said they did not blame the sheriff as he had been sent by the municipality.
“We have been waiting for houses for a long time and they keep telling us about the list,” the woman said.
“Most of the people here are unemployed but they have lost the little that they had. People are very angry and instead of talking to us, they sent gun-crazy police who boasted that they will shoot us.
“We are nothing in their eyes but animals.”
A group of residents went to Ward 60 councillor Mvuzo Mbelekane’s office to demand answers about the evictions, but were stopped there by the police.
Some have vowed to rebuild their shacks. They also threatened to close all municipal buildings in the area.
Meanwhile, at the council meeting, councillors fiercely debated the Wells Estate land invasion issue, with all of them calling for it to be handled sensitively.
Patriotic Alliance councillor Marlon Daniels said: “Let us be sensitive to the fact that these shacks are a glorified cannon because people don’t have options.
“It is demoralising and dehumanising for someone to say I am going to go and build a shack.
“But children see it as a standard. These children put on a brave face and go to school, and you will be shocked about the conditions they live in.
“I understand there are court processes, but those people are not there by choice.”
ANC councillor Andile Lungisa suggested that councillors hold a workshop to deal with the housing issue. “This is a complex issue,” he said.
“It will help to have a workshop and to discuss, as the municipality, how we can deal with the issue.
“The reality is we will never meet the demand of people who want houses.
“Do not use the courts because they are not government.
“We must have a political solution to the matter,” Lungisa said.
The metro’s political head of human settlements, Nqaba Bhanga, said while they empathised with the residents, they could not stop the evictions as it was in the hands of the court.
Mayor Athol Trollip agreed that a meeting between all political parties should be held.
“We are not going to provide alternative accommodation for people who invaded land because that immediately sets a precedent that we are off-setting the whole thing,” he said.
“We all agreed that we will discuss how do we address land invasion – even if it means providing serviced sites.”
Police spokesman Mncedi Mbombo confirmed five people were arrested for public violence.