South Africa: Reprieve for Farm Families Facing Second Eviction

12 December 2019

But municipalities wash their hands of responsibility for providing alternative accommodation

The hearing on the eviction of 76 families from a state-owned farm outside Stellenbosch was postponed by the Western Cape High Court on Wednesday at the request of the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development.

It was the department's deputy minister Mcebisi Skwatsha who allowed the families to move onto the state-owned Mesco farm on Bottelary Road after their eviction from the Klein Akker farm in Kraaifontein on 19 August.

Both the City of Cape Town, in whose jurisdiction Klein Akker falls, and the Stellenbosch Municipality within whose boundaries they are now accommodated, are washing their hands of any responsibility to provide temporary, or emergency, housing for them should the eviction application before the court be successful.

Skwatsha's decision to move the families onto the Mesco farm came after they were evicted from Klein Akker, where many of them had been living for 19 years, by order of the High Court following an application by the land owner. The families lost their building materials and most of their possessions during the eviction.

As Klein Akker fell within the City of Cape Town's boundaries, the City was obliged to provide emergency housing for them, and offered land in Kampies, in Philippi, some 30km away.

This offer was rejected by the families, who chose rather to live on the side of the road. After they had been living for weeks in the open, Skwatsha intervened.

Mattheus Adams, 60, who is living in a 12 square metre storeroom on the Mesco farm with his wife and six-year-old son, said Philippi was "full of crime and gangs" and even the people who lived there wanted to get out, so why would they want to move there.

Attending court on Wednesday, Adams said Mesco farm was not far from Klein Akker and the 46 children there were still able to attend the same schools. This would not be possible if they moved to Philippi.

But Ricmal Green (Pty) Ltd, which signed a lease agreement for the Mesco farm with the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development in November 2018, is applying to the High Court to evict the families once again.

Ricmal Green, together with shareholders Mesco Farm Workers Primary Cooperative, aim to farm the land on a commercial basis. They argue that they are not wealthy landowners, but "persons classified as previously disadvantaged who have ... been afforded what is almost certainly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity" on the farm.

Judge Lister Nuku granted the late application for postponement of the hearing.

Its heads of argument for the eviction application, which was brought before the court as urgent, reveal that Ricmal Green believe no temporary accommodation needs to be provided to the evictees under the Prevention of Illegal Eviction from and Unlawful Occupation of Land Act (known as the PIE Act) as they have been living on the property for less than six months.

However, advocate Michael Tsele, for the occupying families, argues the Extension of Security of Tenure Act (ESTA) and not the PIE Act applies in this case.

Tsele argues that ESTA applies to rural land which the occupiers have permission - in this case from Skwatsha - to occupy. The argument over PIE versus ESTA essentially rests on this question of permission, and Ricmal Green's argument is void, he says, because it is based on the wrong Act.

Ricmal Green's advocate Casper Maree argues that Skwatsha had no authority to grant permission to occupy the land. He says the eviction application is urgent, as funding for the cooperative has recently been received and commercial activities must begin.

But Tsele disputes any urgency in the case. In any case, he says, there is no evidence that the families living in the abandoned farmhouse and outhouses pose any threat to farming activities.

The City of Cape Town is one of 11 respondents in the case, along with the occupiers, Stellenbosch Municipality, Winelands District Municipality, and the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development.

City of Cape Town counsel Moshaida Adhikari in court reiterated the City's argument that it no longer has any legal obligation to the occupying families as they now live outside the Cape Town municipal boundary and the City had initially offered alternative emergency accommodation.

However, Adhikari said, the City was willing to continue to engage in inter-governmental relations to try to reach a "holistic solution".

Stellenbosch Municipality also argues the occupying families are not its responsibility.

Their argument, signed by Inus Ferreira and presented to the court, is that the national department settled the families on the Mesco farm and they are thus the national department's responsibility.

In court Ferreira had no objection to postponing the eviction application and said the municipality was "committed to proceed with process to find a solution".

However, Ferreira said the municipality did not want to take responsibility for provision of water and sanitation services to the occupiers, which were currently provided by the Housing Development Agency.

Pieter Hermanus, who was among those evicted from Klein Akker, said the only running water on the Mesco farm was from a tap at the dilapidated farmhouse, but it was not drinkable. It was only used for laundry, said Hermanus, with drinking water coming from four 5,000l rain tanks which were filled up once or twice a week by a water tanker provided by the Housing Development Agency (HDA).

He said sanitation provision consisted of about 20 portable toilets. These, said Adams and fellow occupier Deon Louw, were sufficiently serviced by the HDA.

Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development counsel, Zeynab Titus, said it was in the interests of justice that an "appropriate solution" for the long term accommodation of the families was reached, and the various government departments were committed to the process.

Nuku ordered the department to draft a framework for a resolution process and send it to him, and set the last week of March for hearing the eviction application.

Produced for GroundUp by West Cape News.

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