City of Cape Town condemns high court eviction ruling as a ‘dangerous precedent’

The City of Cape Town plans to appeal a Western Cape high court ruling — deeming its lockdown demolition of “unoccupied shacks” illegal — to “protect the rule of law, and private and public property”.

In a scathing judgment handed down this week, judges Yasmin Meer and Rosheni Allie described recent Cape Town evictions, including that of a naked man, Bulelani Qolani, as “reminiscent of apartheid-era, brutal forced removals”.

The judgment in the application brought by the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) and civic group The Housing Assembly, and supported by the Economic Freedom Fighters, Meer ruled that the city and its Anti-Land Invasion Unit (ALIU) were interdicted from demolishing or evicting anybody from any shack, hut, tent or dwelling for the duration of the national state of disaster, except when a court order is obtained.

The order reads that, if court permission is granted for any eviction, law enforcement or any contractor appointed by the city should undertake to execute the eviction in a manner that upholds the dignity of the evicted people. They are also prohibited from using excessive force or from confiscating the personal belongings of individuals.

The ruling sided with the SAHRC and Housing Assembly’s contention that current ongoing land occupation is being driven by homelessness, poverty and desperation.

This is in contrast to the City claiming on several occasions that land occupations were driven by political motives. 

“It is the poorest of the poor, the downtrodden, and unemployed who seek refuge in informal settlements and erect structures to provide shelter,” the judgment stated. 

The court also declared that although confiscated possessions of evicted people must be returned to them, compensation of R2 000 for the loss of personal belongings should also be paid to individuals who have suffered.

In a statement on Tuesday, Cape Town Mayor Dan Plato described the judgment as a “dangerous precedent”.

“If left unchallenged, the interdict would make it almost impossible for landowners to protect their property from unlawful occupation and to prevent people from establishing homes, albeit unlawfully, on the property of others. The knock-on effect of the large-scale, orchestrated land invasions we have seen is simply devastating for Cape Town, its communities, residents in general and the City,” Plato said.

Since July, the city has responded to more than 100 land occupation incidents, in 30 different parts of the metro. Plato said more than 50 000 illegal structures had been removed. 

“Public land earmarked for housing, healthcare, schools, transport [and] basic services would be permanently lost to unlawful land occupations with devastating consequences. 

“It could be that the extent of unlawful land occupation on public land would be so extensive to the point of undermining all the state’s housing plans and the integrated development plan of this City — as well as all municipalities, for that matter — as there would be no means of protecting any land from occupation,” Plato said.

The ruling, while interdicting the City of Cape Town, could have a wide-reaching effect on other municipalities across the country.

All municipalities would now have to approach the courts first for permission to demolish structures, even if law enforcement officials believed it was unoccupied.  

The SAHRC’s Chris Nissen said the chapter nine institution was not rejoicing in the ruling but applauded it as a victory for poor people.  

“It is about due process. If you or I decide we want to grab land in Camps Bay, that is illegal. The law must remove us. But not when a poor person and their family find a place to build a small something, they’ve been there for some time, and then the city comes, demolishing their house, and they lose everything,” Nissen said.

Reacting to the judgment, the national human settlements department said it welcomed the ruling. 

“We also welcome the court’s instructions that the City must rebuild the structures they demolished and compensate the victims. South African legislation does not permit any arbitrary evictions of residents and the state is obliged to ensure such violation of residents’ human rights has consequences and is stopped immediately,” the department quoted Human Settlements Minister Lindiwe Sisulu as saying.

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