Homelessness happens. But disturbing office workers with singing? That’s where we draw the line

I returned from Cape Town last night and this morning as I opened 3 brand new files for evictions of communities, I wept.

Look. The weather in Cape Town was enough to make any grown Durbanite cry, but right now, I write of not natural phenomena, but imposed human tragedy and suffering.

I was in Cape Town, primarily to advocate for members of the Taxi Industry who are patently being sidelined  and subject to arbitrary non-renewal and non-granting of permits which is accompanied by, expensive, and sometimes violent, law enforcement.

While I was there, I was consulted by yet another community facing eviction. Correction, this is the first one facing eviction. The other two were evicted in some kind of act first and explain later massacre of the law and complete derogation of the essential standard of what is humane.

This community faces eviction. And they were referred to me by Ses’khona on the day before the action for eviction was to be heard in court.

I met with the community leaders who handed me a heart breaking statement they had written on the mandate of the community.  I publish it here, with their consent.

“New Castle residents we came from inside Monwabisi Park that know as Ndlovini, we were living as back yarders and house keepers. Living like that was never been pleasant, the land lords do whatever they like because they know that we were depending on them. It hurt deep inside when somebody is telling you that should’ve been living on the streets if he/she didn’t accepted you in his/her space.

Being a backyarder had never been easy. You must always keep in your mind that anytime you can be kicked out as that happened to us, because we were not in our own space or plot. What during the process of development we were given the notice by our land lords to move our shack out so they can put their relatives and children on the spaces so they can get development. It is hard to refuse when someone is telling you that, while you know that you living in his/her space. Rent and electricity are so expensive, some of us are not working, and some of us does not get enough salary/wages to go rent some else when we got kicked out. When got kicked out we didn’t know where to go, we then decided to use piece of land to build us some houses.

As there is a speech or saying here in South Africa, South Africa belong to all who live in it, our feeling on that speech is like we are foreigners in our country. We then decided to come to this space at back of Ndlovini which we called it New Castle and use it as our home. A home is where it is safe, we took that as our responsibility to keep New Castle safe and secured.

In New Castle we did not mean to interrupt the metro of City of Cape Town on the progress of working. As the slogan of our metro says, this City works for you, we sincerely want it to work for us on this really hard situation. We have families and children to take care, we don’t afford to be on the streets.

As New Castle residents we are sincerely needed a place to live and that’s why we ended up here.”

So yesterday what I did was attempt to call the City’s attorneys to let them know we had been instructed and needed time to consult with the community and instruct a legal team to represent them. I found that even with a case number and file reference number, the firm dealing with the matter could not direct me to the attorney handling the matter. I have over 10 years experience formerly practising as an attorney and conveyancer, over 18 years experience in teaching law and ADR and in the practice of alternative dispute resolution and restorative justice. And I could not secure these details. What chance does a Xhosa speaking community of urban shack-dwellers facing eviction by the City have?

As I was heading down to court the community leader called me

“Mamma, the community is waiting at court for you

I’m on my way

Mamma can the community sing?

Yes, you can sing. But remain peaceful. We must be safe.

Ok Mamma”

As I arrived at the court, I heard a group approaching, singing.

They gathered in from of the court and I thought it was the New Castle Community. But I stood on the court steps waiting for the community leaders. The group were singing and dancing, but they were peaceful.

At some point I was called by our clients. They had gone to the wrong court and I directed them to the High Court. I realised the community before me were not our clients. I learned this was a community who had been evicted and their matter was also in court.

At some point a police officer approached me:

“This group must stop singing

Why? They are peaceful, I said

Do they have permits to gather?

They have been evicted and summoned to court. They have every right to be here, I said

The police officer turned menacing and took out his phone threatening that if they do not stop singing he would “call who I have to call”

He a wrapped up his threats with “They will disturb the office workers and we can’t allow that”

Seeing this engagement the group started to Toyi Toyi. So just to help diffuse the situation I approached one of the members upfront to chat to them. The community became suspicious and started to chant “shoot, shoot, shoot.” In Xhosa. I with the assistance of someone with me was able to convey that we were allies of their plight and not against them and all remained calm.

Time was getting short so I headed up to court to see if I could find the City’s lawyers. The registrar was helpful and said as soon as they arrived, he would introduce them to me. Looking around the court and seeing it filling up with Advocates rapidly, I said to the registrar, the community is gathering outside and there is another community. I think things may be tense with police and I may like to invite the community in just to help mitigate against any injury or harm.

He responded

“We don’t care what happens out there, they can kill each other for all I care. We don’t have space in here”

So I said, Sir, I think we have a responsibility to guard against injury and loss of life.

The Registrar softened and said “Madam, you are right, and they have every right to be here. Inside. Please invite them in”

When the City Legal Team got there, they were immediately directed to me. They were gracious and approachable and agreed on a two week postponement for Access to Justice to understand the case against the community and instruct an appropriate legal team.

Outside, in the rain, I addressed the community, with the help of one of our Taxi Operator clients who helped me interpret and who helped me get to Court and Assisted me in navigating all the territory, literally and figuratively. I explained to the community the purpose of the adjournment and how we would gather information and advocate for engagement with the City in terms of Section 26 of the Constitution and the Grootboom case which makes it unlawful for Administration to evict without proper consultation on alternative living arrangments. I also gave them comfort, confirmed by the City’s legal team, that no action to evict would be undertaken immediately.

As we were wrapping up, a woman approached me and asked to meet with me. She happens to be the acting head of the SA Human Rights Commission of the Province. We met later and discussed the disturbing trend of local government and the state literally negating the needs of the poor and actually creating further homelessness. We spoke of the plight of the poor as the sleeping giant about to surge up and agreed that we would do all we could to work in solidarity with each other and others who recognize this as untenable for every citizen of the country. And we agreed that we would respond to the plight of the poor in this with whatever measures we can to protect them against further injury, further homelessness and further, extra-aneously imposed poverty. We agreed that it is in the interests of every single citizen of this land that we protect the poor.

We will not accept a status quo where office workers are protected from hearing singing in the streets, but the poor are not safe in their own homes. And the enemy of the poor, happens to be the very ones with a responsibility to protect them

Sheena St. Clair Jonker

ADR Network SA and Access to Justice

0843773340

sheena@accesstojustice.co.za

Leave a Reply