Residents risk their lives and belongings in a simple fight for a place to call home, writes Camagwini Mavovana
Desperate and with nowhere to turn, hundreds of Nelson Mandela Bay residents have repeatedly occupied vacant land illegally, risking their belongings and their lives to ensure they have a roof over their heads.
Over the last two months, Wells Estate residents who invaded a vacant stretch of land have been forcefully evicted by the police and the municipality three times. They, however, remain determined that they would continue to rebuild their shacks, because they have nowhere else to go.
The residents blame the municipality for not providing alternative land for them, saying they are expected to live on the streets.
Ndileka Maneli, 38, says they have been terrorised at the hands of the police since February 24. Pointing out the rubber bullet wounds which cover her body, Maneli said it was a constant reminder of the horror that they have had to endure time and again.
Luzuko Zondani, 29, alleges that during the last evictions in March, they stopped a bulldozer in the nick of time from flattening a shack while a baby was still inside.
Zondani said often no questions were asked and they were almost never given time to remove their furniture and belongings before their homes were destroyed. “We were unarmed and helpless yet they had armed personnel taunting the whole community,” Zondani said.
“We are not going anywhere. We will keep rebuilding on this land until they provide housing or alternative plots for us.”
The residents blamed it all on the m e t ro ’s political head of human settlements, councillor Nqaba Bhanga. Bhanga says simply occupying land is illegal and they are required by law to move.
“Providing alternative land means it has to have basic services,” Bhanga said. “We are unable to do that whilst still formalising the housing system for those who need RDP homes. “Their belongings are with the Sheriff of the Court and they can access them when they want. “The court told them that they need to leave, and the court will continue to remove them unless they want to face charges.”
Three years ago, a similar situation unfolded in Uitenhage’s Lapland informal settlement when 600 destitute families’ homes were destroyed. At the time, the municipality said that the families had illegally invaded land next to a flood plain. They, like the Wells Estate group, rebuilt their shacks and are steadfast in their refusal to leave.
Lapland resident Susan Smith, 47, said they did not have anywhere to get water or to relieve themselves. She said about 300 people reside on the land and they were not going anywhere.
“They hold that thing over our heads that we are here illegally and we squat. Even if they want us to move they don’t provide an alternative place,” Smith said. “When it rains, nothing happens to our houses. We are fine, it’s dry here.”
Agnus Williams, 58, said that despite the being land illegally occupied, the municipality had installed solar panels for electricity. Their ward councillor, Siphiwo Plaatjies (Ward 45), said they would continue to look for a better place for the residents. He said the solar panels, as well as water and toilets the city would now provide, should not be mistaken for the municipality accepting their illegal invasion of the land.
“We had found land for them but the environmental impact assessment revealed that it wasn’t suitable for them,” Plaatjies said. “They are there until we can provide an alternative place for them.” EFF member Bo Madwara, who is director of the NGO Vulnerable Workers and Community, has been championing the plight of the displaced residents in Lapland.
In an impassioned plea to the municipality’s political leadership, Madwara implored them to hear their cries. He said the evictions contravened the constitution, as everyone had a right to dignity.
“The municipality needs to publicly apologise for championing the unlawful actions which have clearly had a detrimental impact upon the black communities of Uitenhage,”Madwara said.
He said a high number of children were not attending school and painted a horrific picture of pit toilets that were glaringly visible to passers-by and the humiliating smell of sewage. Madwara said this type of unfair discrimination “further harms the already bruised reputation of the Nelson Mandela Municipality”.