Durban’s homeless sue council for R530m to get their beachfront home back
eThekwini Municipality will appear in the Durban High Court on Monday 25 November for reneging on a promise made to some of its most vulnerable residents close on two decades ago. The council is being sued for more than R500m for breach of contract for failing to relocate more than 700 evicted homeless residents into a facility suitable enough to offer the same services as the Ark.
The Ark was a massive shelter that had operated in the southern beachfront area since the 1980s. Now Dr Peter Munns will go to trial in a civil case with no legal representation on behalf of remaining Ark residents — and says if he is successful, the R528,369,297 will be used to establish a better, bigger Ark.
If Munns can pull it off, the lives of the city’s remaining Ark residents — and a significant number of eThekwini’s well over 4,000 homeless — will improve.
The remaining residents evicted from the massive Ark community centre in 2004 to make way for Durban’s ambitious, costly and impressive The Point waterfront development call themselves Arkians.
To this day, the Ark building remains empty, fenced-off and — with visible improvements — up for commercial rental.
The R735-million uShaka Marine World development crouches close by, like some watery idol to eThekwini’s progress. The R380-million extended beachfront promenade — officially opened last week and already bustling — is a minute’s stroll away. Upmarket townhouses and offices are within spitting distance of the former haven, although dangerous and derelict buildings still lurk around corners.
The anticipated investment for developing The Point into a high-end destination, with anticipated futuristic Dubai-style skyscrapers, is expected to run into several billion rand and create nearly 7,000 permanent jobs.
People with money live and work here, and those aspiring to climb the proverbial ladder, want to live and work here.
This story is not, however, about the rich, middle-class or aspirational and their objections to having the homeless or addicted roam their neighbourhoods.
Instead, this story is about how eThekwini Municipality has repeatedly failed to deliver on a pledge made in 1999 to some of its most desperate citizens.
Sbu Ntuli and Vusi Ncwane, both in their early 30s, are the de facto administrators of the second level of Ekuphileni house, a former Department of Health building on Vusi Mzimela Road in the Mayville/Cato Manor area.
Both were “relocated” to Ekuphileni in 2004 during the mass eviction of about 720 Ark residents. Ntuli and Ncwane were teenagers at the time.
“We were brought here and told it was temporary until our permanent premises were found. That was 15 years ago,” says Ntuli.
The building is decrepit, with one functioning toilet. Live electrical wires dangle threateningly from the ceiling.
“We have had free electricity and water since we were dropped here. The taxpayer is paying for this, that isn’t right,” says Ntuli. “The company that dropped us here, that was paid to relocate us, told us that we must keep our mouths shut about the electricity and water or it will be cut.”
Across the street from Ekuphileni are hundreds of shacks, teetering on hillocks and sandy ground smothered in litter and built to the road’s edge.
“We don’t interact with them, we are like an island here,” says Ncwane.
“When they [the shack dwellers] have protests because they are angry with the municipality, they come over the road and throw rocks at our windows. They say we don’t belong here because this isn’t our ward, that we were brought here, and that they want to use the building for themselves. We keep to ourselves.”
The ground floor — once undercover parking — is used by the shack dwellers to park or fix their cars.
Ekuphileni is a tight community in which Arkians provide their own security. Children run freely in the premises and around the grassed area in the back. But it’s also a hungry community, and one with residents desperate for work and a “permanent home”.
Behind rotting wooden doors or curtains, makeshift bedrooms exist. A crude, unfinished block and cement structure is built in the foyer — an attempt to cordon off for more accommodation.
None of the 120 Arkians at Ekuphileni receive grants, says Ntuli. They live hand to mouth, relying on donations, and they are waiting for the city to fulfil its promise while they work, look for work and forage for their families.
There is no employment within walking distance and there is no money for taxi fare to town. There is simply no money for anything.
Should Ntuli and Ncwane have stayed at the Ark, or had they been relocated to a facility with similar offerings, they would have been able to make use of services that would no doubt have provided a foundation for their adult years. The 900-bed Ark offered skills training, business mentorship, literacy classes, had a clinic, and fed more than 1,000 residents a day.
Neither Ntuli nor Ncwane have substance abuse problems. None of the Arkians at Ekuphileni have either, they tell me. Some used to drink, but those days are long gone. The Ark, and poverty, provided effective rehabilitation.
A second group of Arkians — hundreds of them — was dropped at Strollers during the 2004 evictions. Seventy remain. Strollers is a makeshift, hostel-esque shelter just off the Umgeni Road main thoroughfare, not far from the city centre. A sturdy and attractive building from afar, the inside is an overcrowded, festering mess.
“Rooms” here can accommodate a single or bunk bed.
Eighty-seven-year-old Jock Pringle is “the oldest Arkian left”. Pringle used to work as a panel beater for the municipality when it was still known as Durban Corporation.
He is one of the “just plain bad luck” Arkians who, he contends, lost his home and savings in the Natal Building Society (NBS) collapse of the 1980s and ended up on the streets. An orphan, he describes himself as “born homeless”.
“I have tried to get him into a better place, I am still trying. It’s not right for a man of his age to live like this,” says Ntuli. The Arkians from Strollers and Ekuphileni are in regular contact.
Mervin Myburg, 53, is a security guard and another of the original Arkians deposited at Strollers.
“I came from the North West and I ended up on the streets of Durban, where I walked aimlessly for about three weeks until somebody told me about the Ark. I went right through the programmes of the Ark and eventually ended up as one of the Ark pastors. I am still here at Strollers with the original Ark people after 15 years. We are still waiting for the city council to do what they promised.”
Robert Mayer, 62, “landed up” at the Ark in 1992 after being told that the climate at the coast would improve his rheumatoid arthritis — a potentially debilitating auto-immune disease that has left some of his fingers buckled with rheumatic nodules. Mayer is being treated with methotrexate at a state facility, and while he says he has, does and can work, the pain becomes “unbearable” at times.
When it was decided that the Ark had to be destroyed and its residents shifted to make way for The Point development, the facility had to undergo a stringent accreditation process and was eventually granted a R10-million provincial housing subsidy for relocation.
The then council was made the holder of the money and agreed to use it to relocate residents to a facility suitable enough to offer the same services that the Ark had.
In 2001, the money was paid to the city and 40 sites were earmarked as possible alternative housing options. Council rejected all of them — although it is alleged it had no authority to do so — for reasons that included price and unhappiness from residents, who did not want the Arkians in their communities.
In May 2004, the Arkians — some of them Aids patients, some mentally ill, others addicts, many just homeless because of family fallouts, poor planning or bad luck — were evicted from their premises to Ekuphileni, Strollers and RDP housing at Welbedacht in the Chatsworth area. About 200 were bused to a shelter in Cape Town.
According to Strollers’ Arkians, social workers and other authorities have told them that the R10-million grant had been used to cover their “daily accommodation rate” over the past 15 years.
Ark founder, pastor Derich de Nysschen, died just months after the evictions at the age of 58 from a “broken heart”, it has been alleged by those who knew him.
This, however, is not the full story. According to media reports, a Durban court upheld his conviction in 2004 of indecently assaulting and raping a nine-year-old female family member between 1996 and 1997. He was initially convicted of the offence in 1999.
De Nysschen was granted an appeal on the grounds that he had evidence his ex-wife and others were plotting to “frame him” to take control of the Ark.
Following De Nysschen’s death, Munns was appointed chairman of the Ark Christian Ministries Church. In 2005, he established The Ark of Compassion and registered The Christian Coalition in 2008 to rebuild the Ark.
Munns told Daily Maverick that De Nysschen “was cleared of all allegations and charges posthumously”. Daily Maverick was unable to verify this at the time of publication.
Brusque and determined, Munns told Daily Maverick he was not averse to taking the fight all the way to the Constitutional Court. Should he not be able to continue with the mission, his board of trustees would take up the cudgels for Arkians.
Munns’ claim of R528,369,297 is calculated on obtaining suitable premises at going rates at The Point precinct or anywhere there is a need to assist the homeless and destitute. The amount also incorporates damages for not releasing the R10,865,000 grant, interest at the current and historical rate, and the lawsuit.
eThekwini has been lambasted for the cost and high number of lawsuits it is fighting instead of trying to find out-of-court settlements. The Ark is the most costly of these, with council saying in 2015 it never expected the matter to make it to trial.
The metro refused to answer detailed questions sent by Daily Maverick and instead responded:
“Please note that this matter is sub-judice and as a result we are not in a position to comment on it. We should, however, stress that the welfare of all our residents will always be our priority. We are therefore calling upon the members of the media to give us space to prepare for this trial.” DM