South Africa

Reporter’s notebook: Chaos and pain in Marlboro Gardens

By Alex Eliseev 28 June 2012

If Johannesburg’s metro cops can’t raise enough cash through speeding fines in Sandton, they can always write a book on how not to conduct evictions. ALEX ELISEEV witnessed the first chapter playing out in Marlboro Gardens.

When the calls started coming into the newsroom about a violent eviction near Alexandra, I was a bit sceptical. I could hear the panic in one of the callers’ voices, but I assured her that police don’t use live ammunition to disperse crowds. At least they haven’t in a good few years. 

As journalists, we guard against running out every time someone cries wolf, but the woman was adamant that bullets were flying and tensions were boiling over. 

It soon became clear that the caller – who lived near the eviction zone – had not imagined anything. 

Somehow, an eviction ended in a gun battle between residents and Johannesburg Metro Police Department officers. The botched operation left at least two people injured, dozens of shacks destroyed, their owners homeless and a police car burnt to a crisp. 

But how did this disaster unfold?

The JMPD says the residents moved in illegally a few months ago and built shacks on a piece of municipal land in the Marlboro Gardens industrial area. 

On June 23 (four days before the eviction) notice was served and the residents were told to pack up and go. Not surprisingly, they didn’t. So on Wednesday, at about 4am in the morning, truckloads of JMPD officers arrived to speed up the departure.

It’s almost certain the people are living there illegally. There’s no doubt that if they are, they should be evicted. One can imagine the chaos that would reign if people were allowed to squat where they liked. But this was a small community that had, one way or another, sprung up like a patch of mushrooms after the rain. 

Wednesday, however, was a bitterly cold morning to send people out into the streets. Many were carrying children on their backs.

We asked the JMPD why the eviction had to start before dawn and were told, because of the number of shacks, officers wanted to get an early start and be finished by midday. Residents argue it was a way to torment them.

JMPD spokesman Wayne Minnaar said no eviction order was needed because the community was trespassing. In other words, the officers were merely enforcing bylaws. 

As the shacks began to fall, the anger began to rise and erupted in gunshots, allegedly coming from members of the community. It hasn’t been confirmed (and is now the subject of a criminal investigation), but witnesses say officers fired back. 

As the clash spiralled out of control, bricks began to fly through the air, tyres went up in flames and a JMPD car was set alight.  

Back-up eventually arrived in the form of the police and, after some time, tempers cooled and calm returned to the area. Smoke continued to hang in the air and tyres smouldered behind police cordons as groups of residents met to discuss their future. 

On the outskirts, a man whispered to me that those living in the shacks had paid some shady landlord hundreds of rands for what they thought was a right to build their homes. Now, they would probably never see that money and would lose much of the material they used to build their homes. 

In the rubble, people were both furious and desperate. A woman whose husband was injured and taken to hospital said she had nowhere to go and no money to look after him or rebuild the house. 

“We’re stranded,” she said. “You see the beds, everything, the kids, we’re staying outside. We don’t know where to go.”

Another woman cut in: “We are crying for our property, our material…they put it on the trucks and they go.”

A man talked directly to President Jacob Zuma, who just hours earlier spoke about making a “giant leap” in transforming the economy and helping eradicate poverty.

“Ask Zuma where we are going to be staying,” the man pleaded. “We don’t have a place to sit. They chased us out. And we have little children.”

Police are now investigating two cases of attempted murder (in connection with the two people wounded) and a few other minor charges. Residents were due to meet various organisations to discuss the eviction and possible solutions. The JMPD refused to back down, saying the officers will return. 

The question that must be asked is could all of this been handled differently or avoided in the first place. And will any of those responsible for the bungle be disciplined?

Metro police officers – JMPD and its counterparts across Gauteng – have been involved in so many scandals it’s difficult to keep score. 

In 2008, a strike turned violent when hundreds of officers blocked one of Johannesburg’s busiest highways and shot rounds at SAPS members (their fellow law enforcers) who came to disperse them. Some officers hurled rocks at their own cars when they realised their enemies for the day were trapped nearby. 

The same year, during the xenophobic mayhem, a badly controlled standoff in Ramaphosa township on the East Rand led to bloodshed, with residents and journalists caught in the crossfire. 

Story after story continues to emerge about officers taking bribes or harassing female motorists. There have been accusations of women being raped by metro cops. One report revealed that a quarter of officers in Tshwane were, at one stage, under some form of investigation. 

Though there are dedicated and skilled officers, far too many are poorly trained and trigger-happy. No one can argue away their right to defend themselves when being shot at, but the entire eviction should have been planned better.

Time after time, we are being shown that when poor training meets unexpected chaos, things blow up or burn down. The Marlboro Gardens eruption was exactly that, and it could have been avoided. DM

Photos of Marlboro Gardens eviction by Alex Eliseev 

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