Police patrolling the streets of the inner city and trying to get members of the homeless population to clear various areas during lockdown. Picture: ALON SKUY
Police patrolling the streets of the inner city and trying to get members of the homeless population to clear various areas during lockdown. Picture: ALON SKUY

In broad daylight. In the dark. With no uniforms. Or identification. Having had no consultation with the community. And with no identifiable logic or reason on who gets to stay and whose home gets destroyed.

This is how the community of Vrygrond in Cape Town describes repeated incidents of shack demolitions since the Covid-19 lockdown began.

Vrygrond is a small settlement near Muizenburg, and is regarded as one of the oldest settlements in the Western Cape.

“Elders, youth, children, new homes, old homes, homes selflessly serving food to their community – no one is spared,” Vrygrond United 4 Change says. And along with homes being demolished, materials are either destroyed or removed to prevent rebuilding.

Under the Disaster Management Act, evictions during the lockdown (even if they are granted by the court) are expressly prohibited.

And aside from the illegality, evictions place vulnerable people at greater risk of contracting Covid-19. It also ignites an anger that is fast turning the poor against the state.

The loss of a home by force and violence comes with financial and emotional costs. When evictions take place, residents lose their homes and their belongings, including IDs, marriage certificates, asylum papers, school books, photographs, linen and cutlery.

Last Friday, residents of Marievale outside Nigel in Gauteng secured an urgent interdict against the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) to halt evictions.

Judge Tintswalo Makhubele went further by ordering the SANDF to return confiscated building material and possessions as well as to stop further damage to the community’s belonging. Makhubele ordered that the army desist from “intimidating, threatening, harassing and/or assaulting” community members.

Also last week, residents in Observatory in Cape Town scored a similar victory when the high court there interdicted the city from evicting residents. The court said the city flouted procedures and violated lockdown regulations.

And, just one day before that interdict was granted, the Legal Resources Centre threatened to take Cape Town to court, arguing that its evictions in the Ocean View informal settlement near Kommetjie were unlawful. The homes were demolished on May 15 and the land that the people were evicted from is not owned by the city.

In Durban, shack dwellers’ movement Abahlali baseMjondolo took the city to court over evictions twice in April — obtaining a victory both times.

Elsewhere, Khayelitsha in Cape Town and Lawley in Joburg are just some of the other sites where evictions have happened, flouting lockdown rules at the time.

Of course, evictions, with or without a court order, are not new. As organisations like Abahlali baseMjondolo can attest, it has been the modus operandi of SA’s cities for decades. More often than not, it’s done without any plan to house people in alternative accommodation.

What it means, however, is that Covid-19 is showing up, once again, the absolute failure of this government to secure housing for its people.

One can’t help but wonder: why are cities using the lockdown as a cover to evict the poorest of their residents in the midst of a pandemic, increasing homelessness in places that already have a dire shortage of housing?

The irony is that these evictions, often accompanied by violence, come at a time when vulnerable communities are most in need of state support.

The lockdown has already disempowered the most vulnerable; to heap evictions on top of that can only be interpreted as an abuse of power.

Worryingly, the Disaster Management Act states that evictions granted by the courts will be suspended until the last day of level 4. That day is Sunday May 31. What will happen after that?

Communities will still be as vulnerable – but the state and its army won’t be constrained by its own legislation.

Yet, this is what these government officials don’t understand: driving people into homelessness, in the middle of a pandemic, is actually a matter of life and death. As this comment from the UN makes clear, housing is both prevention and cure. Governments which protect those most susceptible to the pandemic, by ensuring they don’t become homeless, are simply fulfilling their public health obligations.

Reclaiming dignity

Seen in the context of this wave of evictions, the government’s plea for people to “stay home” as an act of public health solidarity only highlights the stark inequalities in the housing market.

This article on CNN lays out how homelessness in the US, where the cost of housing has been rising faster than wages, has become so much worse due to Covid-19.

In particular, it describes how a group of people, calling themselves the Reclaimers, are finding a solution. They’ve identified empty homes which were bought by the California government for a highway project that was scrapped – and moved in, without a lease or permission. Each home was allocated to a family in need of a place where they could live and safely social distance.

In a statement which many South Africans might identify with, Martha Escudero, one of the Reclaimers, says: “We cannot wait years in order to get secure housing when there’s people now literally dying on the streets and spreading this pandemic.”

For something a little different, read the Review of African Political Economy which questions what it means to be “home”.

Instructions to “stay home”, it says, were not made on the basis of careful knowledge of how homes function. And, of course, it ignores the plight of people who live in overcrowded conditions.

Central to a just response to Covid-19, it says, must be the work of reimagining what is needed to sustain a just home.

* Munshi is News & Fox editor of the FM​

This is a roundup of the best Covid-19 news from the web, brought to you in today’s FM lockdown newsletter. To subscribe, for free, click here.