Covid-19: Evictions

Cape Town rips away dignity for Xhosa man forcibly removed from home, naked

City unleashes its officials on jobless, homeless, naked man

05 July 2020 - 00:00 By PHILANI NOMBEMBE
Bulelani Qolani, here with his daughter, Misokuhle Mqhamane, at their home in the eThembeni informal settlement, which City of Cape Town law enforcement officers demolished this week. Within days it was rebuilt by the community.
Bulelani Qolani, here with his daughter, Misokuhle Mqhamane, at their home in the eThembeni informal settlement, which City of Cape Town law enforcement officers demolished this week. Within days it was rebuilt by the community.
Image: Esa Alexander

Layers of Bulelani Qolani's dignity have been steadily stripped away since he was born 28 years ago.

He quit school in Bhisho, Eastern Cape, when he was in grade 10, leaving his mother and three siblings behind to seek a better life in Cape Town that did not entail grinding poverty.

He found a job as a taxi driver, but in March the wheels fell off when the Covid-19 lockdown left him out of work and unable to pay rent on his backyard flat in Khayelitsha.

Newly homeless, he joined dozens of other backyarders who erected makeshift structures on municipal land in nearby Empolweni.

The story of his life up to that point is replicated across SA, but it changed on Wednesday when a bystander videoed a naked Qolani's scuffle with City of Cape Town law enforcement officers, who went on to tear down his shack with him inside.

R1,200

Bulelani Qolani's rent before he lost his home during lockdown

The video quickly spread on social media and has become the topic of a PR nightmare for the council, a parliamentary debate and an intervention yesterday by police minister Bheki Cele, who visited Khayelitsha to meet Qolani.

The father of four told the Sunday Times that although the incident had degraded him, his biggest worry is that his elderly mother, Nolist, will find out about it.

"I hoped to find a better life when I moved to Cape Town and I was determined to work hard to improve my life," he said.

"But my life is worse. I drove a taxi but earned very little and could not afford to pay my monthly rent, and I joined other backyarders who set up homes on this piece of land. We have been evicted twice since then, but we do not have anywhere else to go. We cannot afford rent, I am unemployed.

4

The number of shacks demolished on Wednesday

"My list of worries is as long as my arm. I am worried about shelter, employment, my mother back home and my safety, among other things. I can tell you that my neighbours are in a similar position."

Cape Town mayor Dan Plato apologised to Qolani for Wednesday's "shameful" treatment and the council commissioned an independent investigation, which is due to submit its report by Friday.

But Plato also said Qolani had staged the encounter, claiming there was video evidence that he was clothed before the incident and walked out of his shack naked in an attempt to prevent it being torn down.

Qolani said images of him wearing clothes were from a visit by law enforcement officers on Tuesday. "What the mayor is saying is laughable," he said, repeating his initial claim that he was bathing when officers burst into his home and dragged him out.

"I had just asked my kids to leave the room so that I could wash because we share one room. I heard my kids screaming and scurrying around as the law enforcement officials destroyed the homes," he said.

"Before I could cover myself up these guys were already destroying my shack. I asked them, 'What is happening?' They said, 'We cannot have any communication with you.' I asked them for a court order and then they asked me how long my home had been standing there and I told them it has been two weeks."

He said his pleas to be allowed to dress were ignored. "I gave them my ID, being one of the few legal documents I have, hoping that by doing so they would respect my rights. But things heated up. They pepper-sprayed me and dragged me outside in the full glare of the public.

"At some stage during the tussle, an isiXhosa-speaking officer approached and said, 'Heybhuti, susokolisa [brother, stop causing trouble]'. I thought he would have empathy, because if you drag a Xhosa man naked in public like that, you have killed him. By doing so, you are not only attacking me but you are attacking all Xhosa men.

"Those law enforcement officials must understand that they did not only compromise my dignity but that of each and every Xhosa man."

Qolani opened a criminal case against the city council and the officers at Harare police station on Thursday. Then he and his neighbours returned to the site where they had been ejected, which they have named eThembeni, place of hope. There they picked up the remnants of their homes and tried to rebuild them.

Cape Town's mayoral committee for water and waste, Xanthea Limberg, said land invasions on the Empolweni land were disrupting a R162m project to install a new water main for Khayelitsha.

"The city is installing a 6.3km pipeline from Faure to Khayelitsha along Baden Powell Drive. Land invasions are halting this project intended to strengthen bulk water supply to the whole of Khayelitsha," she said.

"This is crucial to the assurance of water and sewerage supply in Khayelitsha."


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