NEWS
28/03/2018 16:13 SAST | Updated 28/03/2018 16:13 SAST

Hermanus Land Protests Simmer Down

"It is back to normal."

ertyo5 via Getty Images

A massive operation to clear the debris-strewn streets of Zwelihle, Hermanus, was under way on Wednesday, after government and residents brokered an agreement to end protests over housing and land in the usually peaceful seaside town.

"It is back to normal," police cluster commander Brigadier Donovan Heilbron told News24.

Police are still monitoring the area from a discreet distance after last week's thwarted attempt by some residents to peg out plots for themselves on municipal land sparked massive protests.

"People are going to work and police and residents are busy clearing the road," said Heilbron.

In a final count of damage, arrests and injuries, he said he was relieved that there had been no deaths during the protests.

"You can replace buildings, but you can never replace a life," said Heilbron, commending the officers under his command for the way they handled the confrontations.

Somalis accused of taking up local's spaces

Many residents, especially Somali shop owners, sought refuge at the Ismail and Miriam Ibrahim Islamic Centre on the main road and at a community hall.

Sheikh Aslam Tambara said the Somalis were told their shops and homes were taking living and business space from locals.

The protests were watched closely by many who are awaiting the outcome of a parliamentary process to decide on the amendment of the Constitution to allow for the expropriation of land without compensation.

The EFF filed the motion and has been blamed on social media for encouraging "land invasions" such as the attempted stand-pegging in Hermanus.

Heilbron said 79 people were arrested for public violence related to the protests and are being processed through the courts in groups. Those who have appeared in court already have not been granted bail, he said.

A library, a satellite police station, government houses, a municipal housing office, a recycling plant, a private vehicle and spaza shops were counted among the properties damaged, looted or torched.

Two police vehicles were damaged and a police armoured car was filled with pockmarks from being hit with stones during the protests.

Housing list corruption

Two police officers sustained minor injuries – one to his leg and the other on the head from being hit with a stone.

Heilbron said he would insist on trauma counselling for the officers because, for some, it was the first time they had been involved in a stand-off against such a large group of angry protesters.

The protests began on Thursday last week, when a group of backyarders pegged out plots for themselves on vacant municipal land near Zwelihle, on the outskirts of Hermanus, refusing to continue renting in cramped conditions.

The Red Ants eviction company removed them, with the support of the Overstrand municipality, but residents told News24 on Tuesday after days of protesting that they would no longer tolerate their cramped living conditions, communal toilets and poor sanitation.

They alleged housing list corruption, where money allegedly changed hands to get ahead on a housing list, pushing off people who had waited for more than a decade. They also alleged that the municipality was selling land they could be settling on to private developers instead of thinking of them first.

The people airing their grievances, none of whom wore political party clothing or chanted party slogans, said they just wanted the municipality to set aside stands for them and they would build their own houses.

'Thugs taking advantage of chaos'

They rejected the rows of small, recently built "RDP" government houses built near them, and smashed windows and lit fires inside to show their disdain for the tiny rooms they said could not even fit a double bed.

They distanced themselves from the torching of the front of a library and vandalism inside the building, and the looting, saying these were the actions of drug addicts and thugs taking advantage of the chaos.

On Tuesday, human settlements MEC Bonginkosi Madikizela met community leaders and announced that land would be set aside for residents, a task team would be formed to validate all the names on the municipality's housing database, and that the backyarders would assist in collating information on the group and would help form a list that all relevant parties agreed to.

The land Madikizela had in mind would first be pegged out into stands with enough space for each home to prevent overcrowding and utility lines would be put in.

The money would come from reprioritising new budgets, which are activated on April 1, the new financial year.

Mayor Dudley Coetzee encouraged anybody with proof of corruption within the Overstrand municipality's housing department to come forward and report it so that it can be investigated.

More work ahead

After a massive community meeting on a sports field, where Madikizela announced the agreement, community leader Masibulele Jimlongo said the residents accepted these proposals and were excited.

"There were no strikes after yesterday (Tuesday), as we promised," he said. "It was good news yesterday and we started to clean up the roads."

Madikizela's spokesperson, Ntomboxolo Makoba-Somdaka, said that although the issue had been resolved, there were still processes that needed to be followed, such as the rehabilitation of one of the municipal stands and screening of the housing lists, which would involve other departments.

But in the meantime, Madikizela's office would work with the municipality to get the plan under way swiftly.

One of their main concerns is navigating the complex permutations of government housing programmes to figure out which one each beneficiary will qualify for.

For example, some of the backyarders are school teachers and police officers who fall into the "gap housing" category. This is where a person has a salaried job but does not earn enough to get a bond, but does not qualify for a subsidy either because of their salary bracket.

She said Madikizela was encouraged by the meeting with residents on Tuesday and had spoken to Human Settlements Minister Nomaindia Mfeketo, a former mayor of Cape Town, about the plans.

Mfeketo has indicated that she wants to visit the area, but comment on this from her office was not immediately available.

News24