By Shakirah Thebus
A summit to discuss the plight of backyard dwellers in Cape Town became emotionally charged on Thursday, as residents and activists accused government of failing to address the housing backlog. Civic movement G@tvol Capetonian and representatives from communities who took part in the national shutdown protest three weeks ago gathered at the Cape of Good Hope Castle for the discussions with the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC). Minister of Human Settlements and Development Tertius Simmers and SAHRC commissioner Chris Nissen were asked hard questions about the state of homelessness in the province and increase in backyard dwellers and evictions. Representatives from Ottery, Delft, Parkwood, Steenberg, Ocean View among others were in attendance.
“As we speak women and children are being evicted,” said one G@tvol member urging the talks and processes to take place as speedily as possible.
Things got off to a rocky start when a disagreement unfolded outside the Castle which delayed the summit by over an hour. Some community members from the affected areas gathered in support and to voice their grievances but were told they could not enter as their names were not on the list. Some community members were under the impression it would be a public meeting allowing for public participation.
After having resolved the issue, representatives and community members met with Minister Simmers and Commissioner Nissen and was able to address them regarding their concerns and issues. Some of the key issues raised were evictions, lack of adequate housing opportunities for backyard dwellers, and social housing waiting lists.
Increase in illegal evictions
G@tvol stated that it was predominantly women and children from single-parent homes who were being evicted. One such individual along with her children was evicted on Tuesday and explained that when she arrived at her complex, she was told she could not enter as she was evicted. No prior communication was sent to her informing her of the eviction. As a victim of domestic abuse, she explained that her eviction, which was due to non-payment of rental, was not because she would not pay, but because she could not.
“I know the bill of rights. I’ve read it. No child should be forced to live on the streets, my children being forced to,” she said.
“Women and children are being evicted, babies as young as a 1 year old.”
She went on further to explain her experience of intimidation by tactical forces, when the official, after getting into a dispute with her, used his gun as a means to scare her off.
“I have a problem with the company that put them in place. and I have a problem with the system that is giving this people power. If you are an employer and you allow tactical forces to run, then you need to put measures in place so that they do not use their power to abuse the poor… to abuse women and children.”
“Even though I was not born in that time, I felt what my grandmother felt.”
“The very same people sitting in this very room are the people evicting us.”
One of the demands from G@tvol Capetonian was that a moratorium on all evictions was to be made.
“We are not drug addicts, we are not drug abusers, we are not gangsters, we are mothers with children. In most of the complex there are single parents.”
Return the land
If social housing units cannot be made accessible as alternative housing for evictees, the members demanded that vacant land be allocated to them so that they could build their own.
“Keep the flats. Let the people go and build houses themselves.”
“We are not just here today to ask for houses, we are here today to ask for our land also.”
Another pertinent issue raised was overcrowding in the affected communities. G@tvol Capetonian spokesperson Faadiel Adams addressed the minister directly.
“We are not asking for houses at this stage, we are asking for our land back. Our children are being shot because the ghettos are too full. MEC, allow our children a chance to live.”
Community activist Yumnah Davids said that sometimes you will find around 20 people on a single plot. The issue of individuals remaining for decades on the waiting list was also brought to the attention of the Minister. Many remained on the waiting list, and died while waiting to be housed.
The reason why the National Shutdown took place was due to alleged commitments which was made by the previous MEC of Human Settlements and Development Bongingkosi Madikizela, in which he informed the communities who gathered presently, that they would all have houses by the following year.
After a year had passed, communities had now decided to take the matter into their own hands through determined protests.
“Now the talk is that they are busy with our areas since we had a strike. Every time you must protest to get something done and I feel this is unfair. This is owed to us. You need to give this to us,” said one of the representatives
Government’s lack of engagement with the affected communities was another key point mentioned. Adams called for meaningful engagement by government officials with the communities.
The housing allocation along racial lines should also be scrapped, according to Adams.
“Racial profiling is used and the so-called Coloured people are suffering.”
Apartheid spatial planning
He also urged that state programmes should be created to allow for better social cohesion and integration of people from all socio-economic backgrounds.
“Currently, we foresee social integration being a major stumbling block in the state’s ability to provide access to adequate housing,” said Adams.
“If we don’t have a plan that runs concurrently with the housing program, integration will never take place. I also have a fear that integration will never take place.
“In a nutshell, what has happened in the Cape, for the last 24 years has been nothing short of inhumane. We are telling you we want to empty our ghettos.”
“We don’t believe in segregation. We have the right to return.”
MEC for Human Settlements and Development Tertius Simmers noted that the day of the Summit marked his 92nd day in office and during that time he had visited 20 municipalities out of the 30 in the Western Cape, some on more than one occasion.
“I have never been afraid of going where the community ask me to come.”
As a previous ward councillor, the minister said that he was familiar with many of the issues raised by the representatives and reassured them that now that he occupies a position of executive authority, he could implement change over time.
Housing projects being fast-tracked
Simmers also mentioned projects currently underway relating to the concerns raised.
One such project the department was running was the Greenfield project, in which vacant land belonging to the department was used to develop new social housing units. He also gave the representatives a brief overview of his five year plan with regards to social housing. In the province, there are currently 27 projects which will run over the next five years, which will provide around 105 500 housing opportunities. This project also dictates that 50% of the beneficiaries of these projects should be backyard dwellers, making it the first province to prioritize backyard dwellers according to Simmers.
One of the demands made by G@tvol was that the provincial department provides a housing plan for the Western Cape in 7 days.
“The failure of the government not to have a housing plan or program is a direct violation against the constitution.”
“As a nation, our people we have nothing to celebrate, we need you to succeed so that we can celebrate that.”
As a concluding remark, Human Rights Commissioner Chris Nissen put the idea forward that backyard dwellers should form a committee so that talks could resume within a few days.