South Africa

South Africa

GroundUp: Gugulethu standoff underlines the struggle for urban land

GroundUp: Gugulethu standoff underlines the struggle for urban land

The City of Cape Town’s Law Enforcement evicted land occupiers near Gugulethu on Saturday morning – demolishing six shacks before violent protests erupted. By Monday calm had returned to the community, but the frustrations of shack dwellers from KwaKiki and Sweethome Farm informal settlements continue unrelieved. As police remain on site, residents have vowed that their struggle for land will continue. By DANEEL KNOETZE for GROUNDUP.

The household of Notelo Jita, 56, has become increasingly crowded in recent years. She lives in a two-bedroomed shack in Sweethome Farm – an area on the Cape Flats below the water table that is prone to regular flooding during winter. High rent for backyard dwellers in Gugulethu has forced one of her children to move back to his maternal home. Others have come from the Eastern Cape to Cape Town in search of work.

Today all five of her adult children, aged 20 to 32, live with their mother in the Sweethome Farm shack.

“It is difficult and unhealthy. We are all grown-up, but none of us have any privacy at home. We are desperate for somewhere. That is why I support the idea of settling on that land,” she says. She, along with dozens of her neighbours, are willing to break the law and risk arrest and eviction for a shot at a new shack to house themselves or family members in need.

She speaks to GroundUp on Thursday afternoon from beside a chicken pen, her place of work, on the corner of Lansdowne and Duinefontein Roads. Behind her is the coveted land: a large tract (about the size of three rugby fields) bordered by roads to the south and east, Metrorail’s Central passenger train line to the west and the Nyanga Junction shopping complex to the north.

Metro Police officers stand by; they have been alerted to the community’s plans. In the distance three men with gloves pull out the pegs which demarcate the prospective sites of new shacks. Behind them, a bakkie follows over the rough terrain. Contractors collect the little poles, bind them with rope and load them onto the bakkie for removal.

There is banter between community members and two Metro cops as they watch the flimsy demarcations disappear. But the community keeps an obvious distance from the uniformed men. The verbal jabs directed at the cops are, at once, curiously bitter and playful.

“You know, the City officials come with a lot of stories about this land,” says Jita.

“Some say it is for initiation school, other parts of it belongs to PRASA [the Passenger Rail Association of South Africa]. But all I know is that I have lived here for nearly twenty years. There is nothing ever going on [in] that field. Why then must it lie so empty when we have such a big need to house our children?”

Community leader Kholisani Mdini, from nearby KwaKiki informal settlement, gives another reason in support of a land occupation. The desolation of the land, unlit at night, has – he claims – made it a haven for criminals and a dumping ground for murderers.

“Endless amounts (sic) of dead bodies have been found there and no arrests are being made,” he says.

“This is not a political protest by any party against [the DA run City of Cape Town]. This is coming from a real need in the community.”

The ALIU’s monitoring of the land cannot be sustained indefinitely. During the dead of Friday night, when the coast was clear and at a pre-arranged moment, the first occupiers carried the material for new shacks onto the field. By sunrise, six shacks had been erected. But, the cover and security afforded by the darkness was gone. The ALIU moved in.

Mayco member for Human Settlements Benedicta van Minnen confirms that one erf on the land is owned by the City and another by PRASA. She says that community leaders and City representatives came to an “amicable” agreement, after a foiled attempt by around 150 people to occupy the land earlier in February.

“However, on Saturday, a similar joint operation [between the City and Police] was launched, which prevented the re-invasion attempt by approximately 100 people. This sparked protest action and public violence, including blocking roads with burning tyres and rubble and stoning of vehicles,” she says. She adds that land occupations become fire and flood risks and undermine the job creation potential of industries that could be established on the land.

“The City will continue to uphold the values contained in the Constitution. This includes respect for the dignity of all, compliance with the rule of law at all times, and preventing queue-jumping by those who illegally invade land.”

Yet, the ALIU’s tactics have come under fire from public interest lawyers and activists in recent months, especially following evictions in Marikana informal settlement in January and August 2014. They note that the evictions are mandatorily done without a court order.

“It was absolute chaos,” says Tumi Ramahlele, an activist and paralegal adviser who was on scene at the site of the protest in Gugulethu on Saturday morning.

Protesters blocked Lansdowne and Duinefontein roads, as well as the railway with rubble and burning tyres. They set fire to the field and pelted stones at Public Order Police (POPs) and armoured vehicles which had been dispatched to back-up City officials. Rubber bullets were fired in response, and one of the protesters was arrested. The protests calmed down, but resumed after community meetings on Saturday evening. Police spokesman Captain FC van Wyk confirmed on Sunday that the area would continue to be monitored.

On Monday morning, Jita was back alongside her chicken pen – co-existing uncomfortably with police and the ALIU officers who have remained to monitor the land.

“They cannot keep us down forever,” she says. DM

Photo: Rubble blocks Lansdowne Road after residents protested the eviction of occupiers from land behind Nyanga Junction. Photo by Daneel Knoetze.


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