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We feel insulted by City of Cape Town, says human rights commissioner Nissen

Legal battle lines have been drawn over demolitions of land invaders' homes during the Covid-19 pandemic

16 July 2020 - 09:30 By Philani Nombembe
Human rights comissioner Chris Nissen says the SAHRC feels undermined by the City of Cape Town's utterances.
Human rights comissioner Chris Nissen says the SAHRC feels undermined by the City of Cape Town's utterances.
Image: Philani Nombembe

The demolition of land invaders’ homes during the Covid-19 pandemic has left the SA Human Rights Commission (HRC), the police and the City of Cape Town at daggers drawn.

The HRC, the Housing Assembly and Bulelani Qolani – the man who was recently seen naked in a video being evicted from a shack in Khayelitsha by law enforcement officers – are suing the city in the Cape Town high court.

The parties want the court to declare the city's demolition of shacks in Khayelitsha, Ocean View, Kommetjie and “throughout the city metropole” unlawful.

If the demolitions and evictions have been ordered by the court, the litigants want them to be conducted in the presence of the police “who are directed to ensure that the dignity of the evictees is respected and protected”.

They also want the court to interdict the city and its anti-land invasion unit from demolishing any structures, occupied or not, during the lockdown.  

The matter will be heard on July 24 after a brief postponement on Wednesday.

Mayor Dan Plato has fired salvos at the HRC, saying it “seems to be driven primarily by politics”.

Plato denied that the city had conducted evictions during the lockdown but said “our actions are only directed at preventing land invasions during this period”. 

He added: “Should the municipalities be prevented from protecting vacant land from illegal land invasions, we could overnight lose every open patch of land – including privately owned, state owned, public parks and sidewalks across the city.”

He said the city has lost 357ha, “the equivalent of 200 football fields”, in the past two years to invaders.

“While we accept that some seemingly politically motivated NGOs cannot be reasoned with, we had hoped that a once-reputable organisation like the HRC was still capable of sound reasoning and logic. Sadly, they now seem to be driven primarily by politics,” said Plato.

On Wednesday, Plato said the police were opposing the HRC lawsuit and supported the city’s “right to protect its property”. The national commissioner and ministers of human settlements and co-operative governance and traditional affairs have been cited as respondents.

“In its answering affidavit filed with the court, the SAPS states that the HRC’s application is ‘misguided, fundamentally flawed, and constitutes an abuse of the court process’,” said Plato.

HRC commissioner Chris Nissen said the commission felt insulted by the city.

“First of all we are against any land invasions, public or private. I think it is wrong for the city to suggest that the commission supports that. That is what they are putting in the minds of South Africans,” said Nissen.

“I think it is an insult and it undermines the commission, and we have seen a pattern of undermining actions by the City of Cape Town. We are saying to the city: ‘Please execute your mandate but follow the law'.

“We are not against the city taking out court orders, but like any other landlord they must have a court order. We are also saying the city must follow Covid-19 regulations.”

The EFF has applied to join the litigation on behalf of residents in Zwelethu, Mfuleni. In an affidavit, Zwelethu resident Viwe Sigenu said they want the court to compel the city’s anti-land invasion unit to return their “building materials and personal possessions seized by them during the unlawful evictions”.

Sigenu said the settlement comprises 120 homes and has been the “subject of at least seven evictions” since March.

“Despite an arduous search of documents detailing the power of the City of Cape Town to establish a policing unit outside the SA Police Service Act [the anti-land invasion unit being such a unit], we have not been able to find any,” the affidavit reads.