Deaf to the desperate pleas of Ekuphumeleleni residents, the eThekwini municipality continues to demolish their shacks as the Covid-19 lockdown takes other terrible tolls.
In Ekuphumeleleni, a shack settlement in Mariannhill, north of Durban, the eThekwini Metropolitan Municipality has continued demolishing shacks that it claims are unoccupied. The destruction of dwellings has continued despite a moratorium on evictions during South Africa's national lockdown, which started on 26 March 2020.
On Monday 6 April, another 15 homes were destroyed on instruction of the municipality, leaving about 50 residents fearing destitution.
Sipho Sithole, 48, says he had rebuilt his shack three times since 27 March, when yet another round of demolitions took place. He now lives with his neighbour.
"The men in blue, carrying axes, came inside and demanded that I leave," said Sithole. "I was woken up by the noise and, as some had axes, I began packing my belongings and watched as they broke down my home piece by piece. I have given up rebuilding because it has proven futile. They are now coming here every second day. I am out of building material and resources."
Sithole says he arrived at Ekuphumeleleni ("place of success" in isiZulu) in 2018 after he had been living in a crowded home shared with his sister and her children. His neighbour has offered him refuge, while others have provided space to keep his furniture safe. But their homes are also marked with a red X; they, too, fear eviction.
Nokhuselo Macharia, 51, who shares a shack with her six children, says she was the first to occupy the once dense forest in 2018 after she lost her job as a domestic worker in Pinetown. According to her, the private company that has been contracted to carry out the demolitions, Calvin and Family Security Services, has warned her that she would be next.
"After they were done demolishing the houses, they told us to prepare to leave because we were all next. All these homes are marked - that means we are all not wanted here. We were told to start making alternative plans and remove the building materials that make up our homes.
"Where will I go? I will wait here and see what happens next because I have nowhere to go with my children. The country is under lockdown; there are no stores open to buy building supplies. If I lose my home now, I may not be able to rebuild it again," said Macharia.
Fighting for a home
Ekuphumeleleni is one of two shack settlements in Durban where impoverished residents are battling evictions. Since the lockdown, about 60 shacks have also been demolished violently in Azania settlement in Cato Manor. A total of five injuries were reported after the demolitions, and one hospitalised resident is apparently in a critical condition.
Section 26(1) of the Constitution states that everyone has the right to access adequate housing. This means the state must create conducive conditions for all its citizens, irrespective of their economic status, to access affordable housing. In addition, Section 26(3) prohibits the eviction of persons from their homes without a court order.
The shack dwellers' movement Abahlali baseMjondolo says these evictions are both illegal and a violation of the residents' human rights. It has applied for an urgent interdict in the high court in Durban. A spokesperson for the movement, Mqapheli Bonono, said: "Abahlali baseMjondolo, with the help from the Socio-Economic Rights Institute, has taken eThekwini municipality to the high court to prevent the ongoing evictions.
"During the time of a global pandemic and economic uncertainty, the city is subjecting poor residents in informal settlements to greater health risks and exposing them to the Covid-19 virus. Yet we have been told to stay at home where we can be safe. There is a huge contradiction and falseness being displayed. The poor people living in informal settlements also deserve to be protected.
"The people of Ekuphumeleleni have been living peacefully in that community. There are homes with decent families, young children and elderly women, all who deserve to be protected. We will continue to prioritise them and fight these evictions because they are illegal and inhumane," said Bonono.
Abahlali says it will continue to defend the residents facing eviction and has called on other local and international social movements to act in solidarity to halt the evictions.
Promises and betrayals
Thabile Ngubane, 35, and Moses Msindo, 39, are the unemployed parents of four children. They came to Ekuphumeleleni in 2018 from KwaSanti, a nearby township in Pinetown, and have been evicted before. Now they fear becoming homeless.
"This was our promised land. When we arrived, we hoped things would get better for our family. I was able to support my family from the piece jobs I would do, but since our movement has been restricted, we not only fear starving but also homelessness," said Msindo.
"The same X we placed on voting day is the same X taking away our homes. We are here because we have nothing. We can't afford to be anywhere but here - we've built decent homes from scratch and all we need is protection and the right to live."
From behind one of the trees left in the largely cleared forest, a voice rose. It belonged to Ongezwa Ngolo, 27, who said she was too afraid to sleep because of the evictions.
"We don't know when they will come for us, so we don't sleep. We wait, we plan and we warn the children of what may happen. We all need to prepare to run and take essentials with us while they destroy our home. It's a life we have sadly experienced too many times since 2018.
"The harshness of the evictions is worsened by its timing. Our homes are being destroyed during a time when everyone should be feeling safe and protected. We are told to stay inside our homes, but we are being kicked out of ours. Are we not people with the same rights? What about the children?
"The poor man's life is too cheap in South Africa; it matters not to the rest of people who are governing us and those looking down at us from their comfortable homes. We have not harmed anyone. Instead, we have all tried to improve our lives. Having access to adequate housing is a South African human right," added Ngolo.
The court application to prevent both the evictions was dismissed on Tuesday, 7 April at the Durban High Court.
Chairperson of Abahlali baseMjondolo said the movement's legal team will appeal the judgement:
"The struggle still continues. We will continue to play our role for the people of Ekuphumeleleni and Azania. As soon as we have been provided with the written judgement, we will relook at the case.
"It is sad that a judge has allowed for this to happen. People have lost their homes during this time. All the evidence was provided to the judge; people's homes, belongings and food destroyed but it was not enough to convince the judgement," explained Bonono.
The eThekwini Municipality did not respond to requests for comment.