With one in three South Africans out of work, shanty towns are springing up around the city but the authorities are accused of criminalising poverty with evictions that echo apartheid laws.
A new Cape Town bylaw has been passed that criminalises the act of occupying public and private land, legitimising the authority’s behaviour. Civil society organisations and informal settlement residents say the law targets the poor, criminalises poverty, harks back to apartheid legislation and contravenes South Africa’s constitution.
Under the bylaw, officials can dismantle a structure and impound the occupier’s possessions if it is on city land, or on any other land if the structure is “not yet capable of constituting a home”. It grants “authorised officials” the power to arrest without a warrant, impound building materials, and identify areas that could be unlawfully occupied. Those convicted face fines or up to two years’ imprisonment.
A new informal settlement known as “Covid” houses 87,000 people live in shacks of wood and corrugated iron. There is no running water or electricity – six people have died trying to connect their homes to the mains electricity supply. Toilets used to be an open hole in the ground until a child fell into one and drowned; now they are covered. Many residents struggle to feed themselves, and some living with chronic illnesses have died after skipping medication that needs to be taken with food. Yet the settlement is organised, and people have set up small businesses such as hair salons, shops and cafes. Many of the residents are former “back-yard dwellers” (people renting space on pockets of land around other’s homes) who were illegally evicted by landlords, or people whose income was shattered by the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns. Jobs remain scarce, with one in three South Africans unemployed.
“We stay here because we have no choice,” says Luthando Mcuntula, on the settlement’s leadership committee.
“This is apartheid,” says Mphithi, another committee member. “The majority here are black people. People who don’t have a place to stay are black people. You will never find a white person staying in these shacks. We stay here because we can’t do otherwise. I can’t pay rent because I’m not working. Our children are traumatised; they read about apartheid, but it’s happening now. It’s not nice to stay here but we don’t have any alternative.”
According to Ndifuna Ukwazi, an activist organisation and law centre, the unlawful occupations bylaw “reflects an approach to informality that echoes the apartheid government’s displacement and forced removal of black and coloured people from urban centres”. It says the bylaw circumvents protections afforded to unlawful occupiers in the Prevention of Illegal Eviction from and Unlawful Occupation of Land Act 19 of 1998 (known as the “Pie act”), which sets out to prevent arbitrary evictions, and the South African constitution, which says no one can be evicted without a court order.
Mpho Raboeane, a lawyer for Ndifuna Ukwazi, says: “There are quite a few problems with the bylaw but paramount is the criminalisation of occupation which, given South Africa’s context and history, takes us back to apartheid-era thinking. Moreover, it is targeted at poor people and weaponises the use of legislation against them.”