Caught in the land-grabs crossfire
A Somali shopkeeper represents the life-and-death decisions both bystanders and policymakers have to make as Hermanus burns
Somali shopkeeper Abdala Gedi in a split second had to choose between staying to protect the business that put food on the table for his family, or fleeing for his life.
The 20-year-old chose the latter. He came face to face with a seemingly irate crowd in the normally peaceful seaside town of Hermanus in the Western Cape on Tuesday, where residents are demanding their cry for proper housing be heard.
While people attempted to occupy land, on the other side of the country a panel was trying to find answers to the issue of land and expropriation at a summit in Johannesburg.
Government’s failure to perhaps understand and implement the Constitution was to blame for the violent failed land-grabs in places such as Hermanus, said Professor Mathole Motshekga, a member of the Justice Portfolio Committee and Constitutional Review at the summit.“Innocent people can be caught in the crossfire if people are not satisfied with what government is doing. There are some of us who are also not satisfied with what government is doing. That is why we convened this forum,” Motshekga warned.
“We have councillors on the ground; we have MPs, MPLs who report to parliament. They must draw the attention of parliament to the failure of government to do things because ministers, councillors and mayors are accountable to parliament, which is accountable to the people.”He was speaking to Times Select on the sidelines of the Land Reform dialogue held in Johannesburg, where the ANC’s stance on land expropriation was one of the topics on the agenda.
Even as an active member of government, he was one of those who was not pleased by the manner in which government had handled the land issue.This concern became a frightening reality for Gedi. “Do you know when a group of 100 people are running towards you, you don’t know what to take. The money, we left, and most of the shop’s items. I still have friends and family who cannot get out. They are too scared to go outside even.”
Rocks, debris, smashed windows, a gutted satellite police station, trashed library, looted shops and closed schools – the town he called home resembled a war zone on Tuesday.
Protests turned violent – hijacked, some say, by criminals or drug addicts – forcing foreign shop owners and scores of residents to flee for their lives.“We are saying enough is enough. There is open land to build affordable houses for us,” said community leader and protest organiser Masibulele Jimlongo.
He said residents decided to embark on a “strike” because they were fed up with the municipality.
Jimlongo told Times Select on Tuesday that residents of Zwelihle were angry. “Some of us are third-generation backyard dwellers. The RDP houses that were allocated to us have been sold to family and friends of the people working in the municipality. We have raised this matter with the municipality and the MEC of human settlements but they never got back to us,” he alleged.
Business slowed to a trickle in the town as staff said they were being intimidated or threatened by protesters. Foreign shop owners, whose stores were looted, have fled.
Gedi said the protests started on Friday. “By Saturday things were starting to get bad. We don’t know why they are protesting. We grabbed as much as we could and we left.”
He supervised four shops owned by his father in Zwelihle.
The town remained volatile on Tuesday as a heavily armed contingent of police patrolled the streets.Protesters damaged buildings on Monday – including setting fire to part of the satellite police station in Zwelihle‚ the library, municipal buildings, a car and a recycling plant – as running battles between police and protesters escalated.
Mineral Resources Minister Gwede Mantashe earlier on Tuesday described what happened in Hermanus as “anarchy” that must not be allowed to flourish.The spark that unleashed chaos in the town, famous as a whale-watching tourist destination, was ignited on March 23 when scores of people marked out plots in a mass land grab that was quickly thwarted by police and Red Ant security personnel. Running battles ensued with rocks raining down on police, rubber bullets fired in return and a looting spree targeting foreign-owned shops.
He said the community had decided that enough was enough. While acknowledging that foreign-owned businesses had been targeted by looters, he blamed break-away groups of protestors whose actions were not sanctioned.At the summit, Motshekga quoted retired judge Dikgang Moseneke, “who has been pointing out that we are not utilising the Constitution to the maximum and, after failing to utilise the Constitution properly, we run and say we will expropriate without compensation as if that does not already exist”.
Motshekga did not pull any punches. “We put people in government not because they are the most wise or most knowledgeable. It is really because how many people voted for them so if you are given a position in government, don’t pretend as if you know it all.
“Talk to other people, seek advice and you will get advice. I think as government, we made a mistake of not having recourse to the wisdom and insights of other people,” Motshekga said.
Commenting on the land grabs, he said: “There is actually no basis to take the law into one’s hands because our Constitution provides us with all the tools to do what can be done or needs to be done.”
With the 2019 elections insight, Motshekga predicted that the issue of land would be a pivotal politicking point.
“People who want more votes, to whip up emotions, will just say: ‘No, expropriate without compensation. If you elect us, we will expropriate without compensation.’ The matter is more complex than that, so we are happy that this process will feed into the parliamentary process and we are also happy that the authors of our Constitution were men and women with foresight.”Now we have begun to address the issue of land and our Constitution provides the tools for us to do that, he said.
Ronald Lamola, former ANC Youth League leader, highlighted how government’s failure to understand the Constitution resulted in confusion regarding issues of land reform.
“The willing buyer, willing seller policy has never been part of the ANC documents,” he said.
Rural Development and Land Reform Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane told the dialogue that, in the last month, she had failed to get people in her department to explain what rural development is.
But she too seemed to not have the answers on pivotal aspects on her role.In a question and answer session, Advocate Tembeka Ngcukaitobi, who recently published the book The Land is Ours, questioned Nkoana-Mashabane on what he deemed as failures of her department.
These included the shortcomings of the Land Claims Court, which Ngcukaitobi said had operated with just one judge for over five years. He also questioned why her department, which claimed to be working towards giving land to labour tenants, was appealing two judgments that had ruled in favour of labour tenants being granted land.
He also questioned her on the beneficiaries of the R54-billion that government had pumped into land restitution.
Nkoana-Mashabane could not provide answers, saying she had only been in the job for a month. She has yet to address the issues of the labour court and on the issue of the judgments; the parties had agreed to settle out of court.In answer to many of the tough questions posed to her on the sidelines, Nkoana-Mashabane simply called for the youth to join the government in working to finds solutions instead of raising the flag on numerous problems.
She told journalists that her department was already looking at pieces of land to expropriate but would not disclose where this land was.