No place to call home: People who had illegally occupied the Cape York building in central Johannesburg have been sleeping out in the cold since they were evacuated after a fire on July 5 killed seven people. Picture: ALON SKUY
No place to call home: People who had illegally occupied the Cape York building in central Johannesburg have been sleeping out in the cold since they were evacuated after a fire on July 5 killed seven people. Picture: ALON SKUY

Two weeks after the devastating fire at the Cape York building in inner-city Johannesburg, which left seven people dead and hundreds homeless, the City of Johannesburg announced on Monday it was embarking on a "crackdown on bad buildings".

The most vulnerable people living in Cape York have been relocated to alternative accommodation, at a shelter in Turffontein, south of the inner city. Most have been left to fend for themselves on the street or in other occupied buildings.

The crackdown entails raiding buildings and arresting "building hijackers" and unlawful migrants.

The city indicates that it intends to scale up these operations to include 85 buildings it has identified as "problem properties".

Meanwhile, in a different context, evictions and displacement are reaching a crisis point in Cape Town.

In a recent publication, the Cape Town-based social justice organisation Ndifuna Ukwazi describes a new round of segregation and inequality as skyrocketing house prices and speculation in the property market lead to rent hikes that residents can no longer afford.

A decade of evictions, including from Gympie Street, Bromwell Street and Albert Road in Woodstock, has not yet resulted in the city developing a transitional housing programme that provides well-located alternative accommodation. Instead, the city relocates people to camps on the periphery such as Blikkiesdorp and Wolwerivier.

The law is clear: evictions can take place when ordered by a court as long as the municipality provides suitable alternative housing to anyone who is a risk of becoming homeless as a result of the eviction.

But constitutional rights don’t disappear once a court orders an eviction. The Constitution safeguards the dignity of people being relocated. Relocations disrupt peoples’ lives and can negatively affect their livelihoods and security.

Evictions are often characterised by violence and the destruction of property as the police or the Red Ants demolish shacks with little regard for the possessions. Occupiers have described being pepper sprayed, beaten and shot with rubber bullets during evictions and, more recently, have reported the Red Ants stealing cellphones and cash.

Even when relocations are not violent, they should be carefully planned and managed to minimise the effect on the households being relocated. It is for this reason that the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of SA (Seri) has developed a new guide on how relocations to alternative housing should be planned and carried out. It will be launched on Thursday.

The guide contains a set of legal and practical guidelines for municipalities on how legal practitioners, community advice officers and government officials can plan and carry out evictions in a sensitive manner that respects people’s rights.

It advocates for relocation being a process rather than a single event and takes into account the range of circumstances under which relocations occur, including immediate responses to emergencies such as fires and relocations that take place over a longer period of time.

The city should focus more on the people living in the 'problem properties', rather than the buildings alone

The guidelines are informed by the experiences of communities who have been relocated in Johannesburg. They identify lessons have been learnt in cases like San José in the inner city and Taylor Road informal settlement, including how a relocation can negatively affect the ability of occupiers to earn a livelihood if they are moved to alternative housing that is far from economic opportunities or into accommodation that prevents households from conducting their income-generating activities.

Municipalities must treat residents with dignity and address homelessness in a humane way by ensuring that the relocation process respects the constitutional rights of those being evicted and is carefully planned and participatory.

Prior to mayor Herman Mashaba taking office, the City of Johannesburg had drafted a policy to address the provision of alternative housing, the Special Process for the Relocation of Evictees, in response to its constitutional obligations.

The city should focus more on the people living in the "problem properties", rather than the buildings alone.

This means less emphasis on the so-called hijackers who run the buildings and more on the people whose lives will be disrupted if they are treated as criminals in crackdowns.

In Cape Town, a humane approach that treats people with dignity means meaningfully engaging with residents to plan for alternatives other than the dumping grounds which currently characterise the city’s response.

With the launch of its new guidelines on relocations, Seri hopes to make a contribution to how legal practitioners, community advice offices and housing officials approach plan for and carry out relocations to alternative accommodation.

 • Clark and Royston are research associates and Mtshiyo is a candidate attorney at Seri.

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