The Ottery People’s Centre (OPC) and its tenants fear displacement after they were notified by letter to vacate the classrooms at the building which previously housed Al-Azhar Primary School and the old Lotus High School in Hector Road, Ottery.
Adding to the tension, on Tuesday March 16, the building behind the classrooms, occupied by the OPC tenants, was destroyed in a fire. It is believed to have been vandalised by the community after security guards from the Department of Transport and Public Works vacated the premises on Sunday March 14.
Jermaine Carelse, spokesperson for the City’s Fire and Rescue Service, said they were called about the fire just after 10pm, on Tuesday March 16. “Two classrooms were severely damaged. No injuries were reported,” he said.
The OPC which comprises 14 tenants including church organisations and three day-care centres, had been operating from the classrooms for 23 years, said OPC chairman Pastor Jonathan Africa, and they want the Department of Transport and Public Works to tell them what is to become of them.
For many years, he said, “We have been trying to meet with the Department of Transport and Public Works to request them to provide plans or a brief if the department is planning to build.”
However, their attempts had fallen on deaf ears and on March 1, they received eviction letters stating the building was “a safety hazard”, said Mr Africa.
When Southern Mail questioned the department, they refused to divulge details about the future plans for the property.
Jandré Bakker, head of communication for the Department of Transport and Public Works, said plans for the school property were being “considered in terms of the government’s service delivery objectives”.
Mr Africa said said their main concern was whether the Department of Public Works would accommodate them elsewhere if they were evicted.
When Southern Mail asked if the department had considered relocating the tenants, Ms Bakker said: “We cannot confirm that at this stage.”
Abe Braaf, a paralegal from New Horizon, Pelican Park, said he was providing legal advice to the OPC and the 14 tenants who received eviction letters. “The matter is being heard at the Western Cape High Court on March 26.”
Mr Braaf said in addition to the church organisations, and three day care centres which were using the classrooms, three families were also living on the premises.
“Twenty-three years ago the old school was occupied by the Lotus High School which vacated the building and moved in 1998, to the other side of Ottery.
“The Department of Public Works (the owner) leased it to the OPC who in turn got the 14 tenants on board.
“The building is dilapidated and since 2017 they tried to evict the 14 tenants (after Al-Azhar moved to Mitchell’s Plain) but never completed their action.
“However the owner wants to evict them to avoid civil claims should the building collapse and hurt people but the tenants have been operating for years. We fear that the owners have other ideas for the property,” said Mr Braaf.
“I informed the tenants that the building is a danger and they must understand the views of the owner, but I informed them to apply or appeal to lease the ground.”
He added that he had advised the OPC to lease the land before it “lands in the hands of rich companies”.
Mr Braaf told Southern Mail that he had arranged a meeting, yesterday Tuesday March 23, to meet with several families who were living on the premises to “try to sort out alternative accommodation for them”.
Mr Africa said the organisations which operate in the old classrooms had been of “great benefit to the community of Ottery” and that it would be a huge loss to residents should the OPC have to vacate the premises.
“We have been trying to have a positive impact on the community for 23 years. Churches are operating on these premises and provide regular projects for the youth.”
Christo Williams, project manager at Ottery Welfare Network (OWN), said the removal of the organisations would be detrimental to the Ottery community.
“We are calling on (Transport and Public Works) MEC Bonginkosi Madikizela, and Patricia de Lille, National Minister of Public Works and Infrastructure to consider giving us the lease of the land or a good part thereof for further uplifting of our community,” he said.