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City of Cape Town’s court actions were both justified and necessary

City of Cape Town’s court actions were both justified and necessary
Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo: Flickr/Gilbert Sopakuwa)

The City of Cape Town disputes the contents of a Daily Maverick report on its recent court battles and says these court actions were not a ‘waste of resources’.

Daily Maverick recently posed the question of whether it is “acceptable” for the City of Cape Town to “be involved in five legal cases” related to informal trading on the Grand Parade, a temporary homeless shelter and an instance of land invasion (“Unmotherly City? As the pandemic rages, City of Cape Town is involved in legal battles,” DM 5 June 2020).

The courts have answered this question already, throwing out two of these applications, with two yet to be fully settled. A fifth matter was not opposed by the City to begin with.

Daily Maverick’s assertion that a government should not be party to litigation against it, and instead channel this “waste of resources” to “help the vulnerable”, is naïve and confusing at best. At worst, it betrays a distinct bias, and failure to offer readers balanced reporting on these matters. 

In reply, I will briefly deal with the factual basis of the relevant litigation.

Trading on the Grand Parade

It is common cause that many undue economic obstacles resulted from poor and ambiguous national regulations under lockdown Levels 4 and 5. Most restrictions on informal trading were not sensible to begin with, especially the permitting process, given that supermarkets were able to open.

The City nevertheless issued over 9,000 permits to informal traders during this time to help people earn a living.

We did not oppose a court application for traders to return to the Grand Parade, the primary thrust of which was to gain clarity from the courts on whether this trading area would be classified as a “flea market” under national regulations.

The matter was moot at the time of its hearing on Friday 29 May, the eve of Level 3 under which certain restrictions would be eased from 1 June.

By Wednesday 3 June, the traders were back on the Grand Parade, having settled environmental health matters in the interests of trader and public safety.

Strandfontein Temporary Shelter

Cape Town achieved the country’s highest service reach to the homeless during lockdown, according to national Social Development’s 23 April reporting to Parliament.

Over 1,300 people were enrolled on chronic meds, 4,500 meals were served daily, and scores were reunited with family.

Covid-19 and TB screening and isolation were well-managed at the centralised Strandfontein facility. A centralised facility, with good health check protocols, ultimately enabled the City and NGO partners to transfer every willing person to smaller shelters.

Cape Town’s visible services to the homeless clearly led to greater scrutiny on us. Local groups in the Strandfontein suburb staged an unsuccessful “not in my backyard” court application to have the facility shut down.

In a separate matter, the courts would later find in favour of the City’s decommissioning plans for the temporary shelter, with their own lawyers abandoning the applicants prior to the court’s order.

Aside from this frivolous litigation, the City was also forced to approach the courts on our own accord as was the case with the misconduct of monitors appointed by the SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC).

The actions of the monitors included the blocking of entrances at the shelter, obstructing food and medical deliveries, and attempts to incite violence.

The City had an obligation to the homeless residents, as well as the NGOs operating the shelter, to protect them from this abuse. After attempts to engage the SAHRC commissioner failed, we had no other option but to apply for an interdict.

Interim relief was granted to the City, preventing the monitors from continuing with their unlawful conduct at the shelter. The bringing of the interdict was necessary and never intended to interfere with the legislation governing the SAHRC.

Contrary to Daily Maverick’s reporting, the City did not “abandon” the matter and expressly advised the court that it was not withdrawing. As the shelter is now closed, the matter is moot and the City requires no further relief.

Thankfully, for every political point scorer, there were 10 helping hands from donors and NGO partners.

The City is paying this forward by disbursing R20-million in grant-in-aid funding to homeless shelters, food relief efforts, and other not-for-profit initiatives.

Empolweni Land Invasion

While evictions have been halted during the lockdown, preventing illegal land invasions has not been put on hold. It is in fact essential that municipal-owned land which is earmarked for human settlements development is not unlawfully occupied during this period.

The City did not carry out an eviction in Empolweni, as Daily Maverick incorrectly asserted. We have satellite images refuting the allegations by occupiers that some of them had been there since late 2019.

The court ruled in its interim order that there was in fact no breach of any regulations by the City. But again, this is not acknowledged in the reporting, and one must ask whether this is due to journalistic inexperience or intentional omission. The merits of the case will be assessed after the lockdown ends. 

The judge emphasised that the City is entitled to protect its land against invasion. Further, that any new illegally erected structures may be removed with immediate effect.

Conclusion

The coronavirus pandemic, and national lockdown, have brought about extraordinary circumstances for us all.

While the City of Cape Town has not agreed with every national regulation, we’ve abided by the rule of law, requested changes to these regulations where possible, and continue to play our part in caring for the most vulnerable.

We believe these aims have been upheld by the courts.

And while we would’ve wished for fewer legal sideshows, we will never fear them if that’s what it takes to keep delivering for our residents. DM

Sharon Cottle is City of Cape Town mayoral committee member for corporate services.

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