Calls have heightened for top City of Cape Town officials to be suspended for their involvement in a recent eviction in Khayelitsha which has raised questions around police brutality. It comes after eThembeni informal settlement resident Bulelani Qholani was forcefully evicted from his illegally erected shack by City law enforcement and Anti-Land Invasion Unit members last week. Footage of the incident, which also depicted a physical altercation and the 28-year-old’s structure being torn down, went viral and caused national outrage. He was also sprayed with pepper spray which affected his genitals.
Condemnation came from several national and local structures, with swift calls for the City to be held accountable for its actions.
Human Settlements Minister Lindiwe Sisulu called out the City for going against national directives which prohibits evictions during the lockdown, while Western cape Community MEC Albert Fritz said that “conduct of this nature had no place in the Western Cape and South Africa.”
Following strong criticism, Cape Town Mayor Dan Plato acknowledged that Qholani’s dignity had been impaired and apologised. The City’s executive director for Safety and Security Richard Bosman confirmed that four officers had been suspended amid ongoing internal and external investigations. Qholani has since laid criminal charges against the officers involved, which relate to malicious damage to property, the violation of the Disaster Management Act and crimen injuria.
But Plato’s apology was short-lived after he suggested that the incident was staged. It comes as the City admitted to having alternative footage, which is alleged to show Qholani dressed moments before the demolition began.
“People can have their own opinions about the situation. Allow the investigating team to do their work. let them unravel what had happened, let them come up with the necessary answers.”
In an interview with VOC’s Breakfast Beat on Monday, Plato also reiterated that an external investigation team has been appointed .
“(We) appointed a clued-up forensics company to look at all the video footages, to interview people to see if there was any fault on the side of the officers. I don’t think there is any bearing for journalists to ask the same question one after the other.”
“If we continue with the internal investigation people might be of the opinion that we did not look at all the necessary issues (or) there is some kind of a cover-up. We don’t want things like that to happen,” he said.
Plato stated that the investigating team has a clear mandate and will make recommendations on how the officials involved should be dealt with.
“If it was found that there were mistakes made on the part of the officials on scene and they did not follow protocol then they will be dealt with,” said Plato.
Community Chest CEO Lorenzo Davids however, has disputed that the City’s position is neutral and questioned why Plato has “asserted a narrative into the public domain ahead of the investigation”. The impartiality of the appointed investigators has also been shrouded in doubt.
“(Plato) needs to make sure that the investigators are truly independent. Refer (the matter) to a judge, who can then put together a team. But it is not for the City to decide who the investigators are, because the City is under investigation,” said Davids.
As had several commentators in the public sphere, Davids pointed to the disregard for human dignity and the conduct of the officials.
“Even if he ran into his house, took off his clothes and sat in a bath, the fact is that poor, black, landless people have to resort to those measures to defend their homes…that’s what the Mayor is missing . People have to strip their dignity and sit naked inside their shacks hoping law enforcement officers of the City will respect their nakedness. Even that was violated,” continued Davids.
“They have no respect for your home, but they won’t even respect your naked attempt to defend you home. They will even destroy your body.”
National police minister Bheki Cele visited the community at the weekend and committed to prioritizing the case after Qholani reached out to the department. Cele accused the City of lacking accountability within its law enforcement agencies and described the City’s actions as inhumane.
It comes amid an ongoing court case ruled on in the Western Cape High Court in April, where the judge agreed that City had the right to demolish shacks and prevent land-grabs. The court had however ordered the City to return housing materials to 49 families who were given legal permission to temporarily occupy the land, suspending the case until after lockdown.
Since then, several families had also begun erecting structures with Qholani being one of them. Plato previously confirmed that Qholani was not among the aforementioned families. The City has since maintained that it was acting within its mandate.
Plato told VOC that residents are aware that the land should remain vacant ahead of plans for development.
“We have councils and sub councils (where) these things get discussed. These things get said to people why they cannot invade land because we want to use the land for multiple services. Unfortunately, all the time, when a site belongs to government people is of the opinion, they have the right to take it and invade (it) for their own purposes and use,” said Plato.
Davids meanwhile pointed to the legality of an eviction, which requires a court order and is lacking in this instance.
“You cannot just arrive with your brute forces and knock somebody’s home down without a legal document. There are so many violations in this process that the City is just allowing its officers to declare a sense of UDI (unilateral declaration of independence),” he said.
Cele echoed the sentiment that the provincial law enforcement needed to be held accountable.
“It is simply astounding listening to the Mayor advance an argument that has no merit anymore. If the Mayor has apologized and suspended officers (but) is failing to act against his own political leadership – the very people who ordered this is action against Qholani,” Davids said, raising calls for a ‘new first-citizen’.
Ndifuna Ukwazi, the Khayelitsha Community Action Network (CAN) and Community Chest are among those calling for the suspension of ‘senior officials’ including Mayco member for Human Settlements Malusi Booi, Mayco member for Safety and Security JP Smith and the city’s executive director for Safety and Security Richard Bosman.