'Barbaric' eviction leaves hundreds homeless

Emotions ran high at a the scene of a mass eviction in Bree Street, Johannesburg, on Thursday as night fell over hundreds of newly homeless families.

Isolated scuffles broke out between those evicted and the Red Ant army - men in red overalls conducting the eviction - who had formed a human wall around a 16-storey building called Bree Chambers.

But major violence was avoided and at least 700 people were booted out of what Johannesburg City Council called an unsafe building.

By 5pm, 13 of the 16 floors had been cleared out and council officials predicted a peaceful end to the eviction. Near a large dumping site, where the Red Ants placed beds, clothes and other belongings of the former tenants, people had accepted their fate.

Earlier, a legal expert visiting the site called the eviction "utterly barbaric" and unconstitutional.

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Stuart Wilson of the Centre for Applied Legal Studies said that to evict people without giving them interim shelter was cruel and an abuse of human rights.

"Alternative accommodation is never provided by council to these desperately poor people," Wilson said. "Council never gives the occupants a chance to be heard or oppose the court orders."

Wilson said such evictions may soon be a thing of the past if a High Court case, brought by the Wits Law Clinic on behalf of tenants from six buildings facing eviction, is successful. Five of the buildings are in Berea.

The law clinic will argue that the eviction process used by the Johannesburg City Council is unconstitutional.

Wilson said most court orders for evictions were applied for and received on an urgent basis.

In the case of the Bree Street evictions, the court order stated that tenants would have to leave by December 17, 2004. The court order was granted because of serious bylaw contraventions. The municipality has pronounced the building unsafe.

"If the health conditions are really so terrible, why did it take seven months for council to implement the eviction?" Wilson asked. "The council is just chasing poor people around the city."

The Wits Law Clinic team, after speaking to evicted people on the street, said some had paid rent the day before the evictions.

Tenants on various floors of the building said rent ranged between R500 and R800 a month.

"These people have been betrayed by their landlord," said Wilson.

The building used to be an office block, which had been illegally used as dwellings.

Zandiswa Nongqotho, 24, who had been living in the flat with her two children for six months, said she did not know why she was being evicted.

"We don't know what to do. We will just go outside and wait. We have no money and there are no flats in this area for us," she said.

Inside the building, water and electricity was still connected but the conditions in the small room were terrible, a reporter said.

Some rooms had six mattresses crammed into them and the communal bathroom were heavily vandalised, he said.

Thomas Khosasi, 18, ran up 14 flights of stairs to find his blind sister who had been caught up in the mass eviction.

He was terrified that Theresa would get lost and be unable to find her way out.

Khosasi, a vendor, had been living with three people in one tiny room for the last three months.

Once reunited both said they were "desperate, confused and stranded".

"We don't know where to go," said Theresa as she strapped a one-year-old baby girl to her back.

Roopa Singh, a municipal spokesperson, said between 500 and 700 people were evicted.

"The conditions that exist within the building pose serious threats to the health and safety of the occupants," she said.

Singh said the elevator shafts were exposed, the sewer infrastructure collapsed and there were insufficient toilet facilities.

The eviction went off without serious violence, but one municipal employee had been hit on the arm by a brick thrown from above.

Democratic Alliance councillor Daniel Mohlatlole said that negotiations with the residents had been going on for two years.

"There is nothing more we can do now," he said. "These people must look for another place. We want people to be safe." - Sapa

Article by: Alex Eliseev from - www.iol.co.za