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Opinionista

Recognise the poor — they are neither criminals nor unworthy of living in the city

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Khululiwe Bhengu is a candidate attorney at the Socio-Economic Right Institute (SERI) and is working on the case against the City of Joburg. She holds a Masters in International Law (LLM) and an LLB degree both from the University of Witwatersrand (Wits). Prior to joining SERI she served an internship with Probono.Org, as well as the Initiative for Strategic Litigation in Africa (ISLA). She has also worked as a research assistant at Wits University.

Far from being a way to eliminate crime, as argued and maintained by the City of Johannesburg, raids on inner-city buildings that are seen as derelict and over-run by illegal immigrants have disproportionately targeted the poor and vulnerable residents of the city.

On a cold winter night of May 2017, Zwelitsha Mhlongo and his family were awakened by a loud knock on their door. This was followed by instructions from the police to exit their flat and stand on the pavement with their identity documents, ready for inspection. The police were raiding the building. This was not an isolated incident. Mhlongo and the residents of Industry House, a building in inner-city Johannesburg, had previously been subjected to inhumane police raids – which were not authorised by a court of law – at least four times before this.

The raids were as a result of Mayor Herman Mashaba’s “shock and awe” tactics which included operations targeted at vulnerable Joburg inner-city residents, such as Operation Fiela, which means “to sweep” in Sesotho. Since starting these raids, Mayor Mashaba has proudly proclaimed, in numerous press releases and interviews, that the raids will end crime in inner-city Johannesburg, eradicate lawlessness and help to “take back the city” from derelict landlords, illegal immigrants, and urban rot.

Some of his key targets have been so-called “bad buildings” and “hijacked buildings “in the inner city, many of which are occupied by unlawful residents on the verge of being evicted. Between July 2017 and May 2018, the Johannesburg Metropolitan Police Department (JMPD), alongside members of the South African Police Service (SAPS), the Department of Home Affairs, and numerous other Johannesburg city departments, conducted more than 39 raids on 11 buildings in the Johannesburg Central and surrounding areas.

The residents of these buildings are no strangers in the inner city, they have lived there since the late 1990a with some actually being owners of units in these so-called hijacked buildings. However, what is clear from these raids is that they are specifically targeted inner-city residents who represent the poor and vulnerable population of Johannesburg the mayor purports to want to protect. It evinces the notion that poor people do not have a claim to stay in the inner city.

Not only have the mayor’s actions blatantly targeted the poor, but he has also manipulated the law to attempt to justify illegally infringing on his constituents’ right to privacy. The raids on these 11 buildings were conducted in terms of section 13 (7) of the SAPS Act which empowers any member of the police to authorise the blocking off and searching of any premises within his/her area of jurisdiction without requiring a warrant from a magistrate or judge.

In essence, the provision allows the police to circumvent the court system and grant themselves access to the home of any resident of the city. The purpose of this provision and the granting of such extraordinary powers is to restore public order and ensure the safety of the public in specific cases. However, section 13(7) is not being used for the limited and specific purposes for which it was drafted; it is being used to terrorise the residents of inner-city buildings by unconstitutionally and unlawfully infringing on their rights.

These raids have essentially entailed the searching of people’s homes at various times of the day and night without notice. The SAPS, JMPD and immigration officials from the Department of Home Affairs routinely force residents to line-up outside on the street in order to search them (without their permission) and demand to see their identity documents or passports. Anyone who does not have an identity document, a foreign passport with a visa, or an asylum seeker permit is detained.

In many cases, men, women and children were forced to stand on the street for hours while the police conduct their raids. On more than one occasion, SAPS extorted money from the residents, threatening them with arrest, eviction and deportation.

The residents of Industry House located in 5 Davies Street were subjected to five raids between June 2017 and May 2018. One of those raids started at 2 am although it was only authorised to start at 8 am, and the residents were forced to line-up outside on the street for more than three hours in order to be searched. These arbitrary raids have exposed people to police brutality and gross violations of their constitutional rights.

The residents of these buildings now live in constant fear of the next raid. Many residents have come home from work to doors that have been kicked in and left ajar and houses turned upside-down and ransacked for any items of value. Some have had to hand over valuables to those conducting the raids without ever being given an explanation as to why those items were being “confiscated”, never to see them again. Mayor Mashaba’s raids have taken away any sense of safety or security the poor residents of these buildings had; their homes are no longer safe.

One of the cornerstones of South Africa’s democracy is the right to dignity, which is afforded to all people as one of the measures to correct the injustices of the past. A person’s right to dignity includes the right to be safe in their home and any conduct that violates this right is unacceptable to society. Under apartheid the police would raid people’s homes without a court order, search warrant or even a legitimate reason to conduct the raid. Twenty-four years into democracy, the low-income residents of Johannesburg’s inner city are again being subjected to inhumane and unconstitutional raids of their homes by police, only this time, at the behest of their city’s mayor.

Far from being a way to eliminate crime, as argued and maintained by the city, the raids have disproportionately targeted the poor and vulnerable residents of the Johannesburg’s inner city, most of whom are facing eviction from privately-owned buildings.

The raids have also been propelled by the general stereotype that the people who occupy those buildings are all criminals and foreign nationals. This evinces the unfortunate attitude that poor black South Africans are criminals and cannot live in the Johannesburg inner city. It criminalises poverty: you are automatically assumed to be a criminal just because you are poor and live in these buildings. The raids have been used as a means to divert focus from the city’s obligations towards the poor residents of these buildings.

The constitutionality of section 13(7) is currently being challenged in the courts in so far as it allows the searching of a person’s home without a court order.

If the section is found to be unconstitutional, the mayor could probably find another obscure section of the law which would temporarily allow him to try to find new ways to chase the poor out of the inner city. Alternatively, he could focus his energy on providing the court-mandated alternative accommodation to which many of the residents of these buildings are entitled. The city is well aware of and has so far failed to meet its obligations to provide the residents of the 11 targeted buildings, who are all facing evictions which could render them homeless, with alternative accommodation.

Conducting illegal raids on these buildings will not fix the problems in Johannesburg’s inner city; developing decent, affordable housing and recognising that the city has a rich and poor population, will. DM

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