A group of 25 Thembokwezi residents in Khayelitsha have started occupying a vacant building previously used by social movement Equal Education. The occupants say they decided to occupy the building after their calls for housing went unanswered.
Most of the occupants were backyard dwellers in the area. They started occupying the block of flats and bungalows on 16 June. The properties are owned by Old Mutual and have been vacant since Equal Education moved its offices to the Isivivana Centre in 2016.
Old Mutual has since obtained an interdict against the occupation.
GroundUp spoke to ten of the occupiers. Most of them are unemployed and say they rely on social grants to buy basic goods. Each of the occupiers contribute to buy paraffin for the only stove in the building. While there is running water, there is no electricity and only one working toilet for all 19 units. Outside the flats are six bungalows which have also been occupied.
One of the occupiers, who did not want to be named, said the flats, built more than 20 years ago, were meant to be part of a low-cost housing project.
“Backyarders were promised time and again that they would get houses on this land. These flats were supposed to be for us, we don’t even understand how Equal Education ended up in this building using it as an office in the first place,” said the occupier.
In 2016, GroundUp reported that the land surrounding the block of flats also belonged to Old Mutual and that 500 low-cost houses and a shopping centre was to be built on it.
Tamara Khoathane, who is unemployed, has three children under the age of 15 years. She says she has been living in Thembokwezi all her life. Her family has “a small” two-roomed house with three other relatives.
Khoathane said despite the heavy presence by police and security guards on Saturday, they were not removed from the property. “They said they were told that we were being violent. We are not violent and we do not intend on being violent. We just want places to live,” she said.
Old Mutual Investment Group’s media manager, Jenna Wilson said the company was aware of the occupation. Wilson said private security guards on the property were “overwhelmed” by the occupiers on 16 June. “[They] took illegal occupation of certain units that were constructed on the property as part of the [low-cost housing] project that was to commence on the property,” said Wilson.
She said it was not the first time this year that the property and the land around it was illegally occupied. Wilson said the last incident occurred in March. She said a case of trespassing was opened on 21 March and that other informal shacks were erected on 26 March but were demolished.
“To date, most of the structures on the site have been removed by the local community and the property manager,” said Wilson. “Old Mutual has consequently obtained an interdict against the invaders, which was served to the group by the Sheriff. The South African Police Service will be enforcing the interdict again,” she said.
On the housing issue, Wilson said Old Mutual committed to building houses on the land. She said they were however mindful of the community’s request to find an alternative use for the land.