A mayor in the Eastern Cape spent the weekend in prison after failing to provide court-sanctioned shelter to residents whose housing structures were unlawfully demolished by the Lusikisiki municipality in 2016.

After almost two years of litigation, the New Rest community could not believe their eyes on Friday evening as Lusikisiki mayor Patrick Mdingi was arrested for being in contempt of a court order.

The residents’ homes, where some of the estimated 150 people had lived for about 20 years, were demolished without the requisite court order the municipality had needed in terms of the Prevention of the Illegal Eviction (PIE) Act.

Community members celebrated outside the correctional services centre in Lusikisiki on Friday after the mayor’s arrest.

A warrant of arrest was also issued for municipal manager Mluleki Fihlani.

Structures not erected 

Mdingi’s arrest is seen as precedent setting, and according to Mbali Baduza from Lawyers for Human Rights, showed that everyone was equal before the law.

Mdingi was released on Monday, but the municipality has been given until Wednesday, April 25 to erect the structures demolished in 2016.

According to Baduza, should the municipality fail to do this, the two officials would immediately be arrested again.

On October 18 2016, the High Court in Grahamstown ordered the municipality to erect emergency temporary structures for the community within 72 hours, which it failed to do.

As the municipal manager and the mayor each had knowledge of the order, Lawyers for Human Rights reapproached the high court on an urgent basis seeking a contempt of court order against the municipality and the two officials in their personal capacity.

In December 2016, the court granted the order, which held that if the municipality failed to erect emergency shelter within 10 days, the mayor and municipal manager would be arrested.

The matter has since been taken on appeal to both the High Court in Grahamstown and the Supreme Court of Appeal.

The application for leave to appeal was rejected in both of the courts.

Baduza said community members reported that the municipality had started to flatten the ground in the area in question on Saturday morning — the morning after the mayor was arrested.

"At the end of it, this is a basic principle of our democracy — no one is above the law," said Baduza. She said that when an official took public office, their first priority should be the people they served.