Land grabs erupt in violence

Celeste Lyners cordons off an area to erect a structure. She is helped by her nephews and nieces.

Tensions were high last week when a group of backyarders and people in need of housing occupied a piece of land in 14th Avenue, Rondevlei.

It started on Friday January 15 when a group of people marked out spaces and erected structures on the open field adjacent to Hillview and the Rondevlei Nature Reserve – part of which is privately owned and parts of which belong to the Western Cape Government and the City of Cape Town .

Willimina Daniels stands at her sons structure with her grandchild Kion de Jager.

The site was previously an informal settlement and many who had lived there were moved to formal housing when the Rondevlei Housing Development was built and completed in 2014.

Malusi Booi, the City of Cape Town’s Mayco member for human settlements, said the City acted on complaints from the community when Law Enforcement’s Land Invasion Unit and police were dispatched to the area.

He confirmed the site had previously been illegally occupied.

“The City previously assisted by moving the people to a formal housing area. It is believed the same group of people are trying to reoccupy this piece of land, which is an unlawful action.”

Shireen Adams, who lives in a room at a house near the field said she had been on the housing waiting list for 19 years.

Howard Soetwater from the United Homeless People’s Association.

“I’ve pleaded with the City to accommodate me and my husband who is a cancer patient but no help has come – that’s why I decided to put up a structure on the field because it seems that is the only way we can get the government’s attention.

“Before I was living from backyard to backyard. I just want a place to call my own. We are not trying to be ungrateful but we need stability and a house of our own” said Ms Adams.

Lincoln Hendricks was shot with rubber bullets.

Howard Soetwater, who was a beneficiary of the Rondevlei Housing Development and chairperson of the United Homeless People’s Association said plans for the Greater Retreat Housing Development had been halted and were taking too long to come to fruition.

“People are suffering and dying and the current conditions with Covid and a pandemic are not making it easier. We need the government to step up and start building houses instead of just talking about it. Backyarders have been threatened with increased rentals but are unable to pay because many have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic,” he said.

The Greater Retreat Housing Development Project stretches across a number of areas, including Plumstead, Ottery, Lotus River, Parkwood, Vrygrond, Seawinds, Grassy Park, Lavender Hill, Steenberg, Retreat, Southfield and Cafda. The Provincial department of human settlements has had several engagements with the Project Steering Committees (PSC), which comprises of community workers and organisations, to discuss the future of the project.

In total 245 properties with a combined size of 349 hectares have been identified, and 32 properties have been identified for further investigation to determine if it is habitable and feasible to build houses.

Mr Soetwater said the group of occupiers had been peaceful.

However, Mr Booi said on the same day of the land grab, when the City tried to approach the unlawful occupiers “the group of people chased the officials out of the area”.

“Some attacked housing officials and stoned them,” he added.

Structures were then removed on Saturday January 16 and Sunday January 17 and law enforcement fired rubber bullets to disperse the crowd.

“The City is acting to prevent the unlawful occupation of land. Engagement with community members will continue,” said Mr Booi.

Sub-council chairperson and Ward 110 councillor Shanen Rossouw accused Mr Soetwater of inciting violence. Although she could not elaborate on this accusation, she said the City was in the process of dealing with Mr Soetwater who had previously been accused of taking money from residents who were not on the housing waiting list, under the guise of securing housing opportunities.

“We are in the process of setting up meetings to find a way forward and I will personally speak to the steering committee of the Greater Retreat Housing Development about Mr Soetwater’s actions,” she said.

Steenberg police spokesperson Sergeant Wesley Twigg confirmed a case of public violence had been opened. “The case is being further investigated after members of the public erected structures on the open piece of land in 14th Avenue Rondevlei and attacked Law enforcement officials.”

Three people aged 30, 37 and 44 were arrested on Saturday January 16 and have appeared in Wynberg Magistrate’s court on related charges.