Payout awaits homeless people - but they don’t know yet
Beneficiaries are the former occupants of properties unlawfully destroyed by the City of Joburg and metro cops
A payout by the City of Johannesburg and Johannesburg Metro Police Department (JMPD) awaits a group of homeless people, but they don’t know this yet because their lawyers are still trying to locate them.
On Wednesday, the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) declared the destruction of property housing about 27 homeless people by the City of Johannesburg and metro police in February 2017 was unconstitutional and unlawful, and ordered the two entities to pay R1,500 to each of the homeless people as compensation for the destruction of their property during a raid.
The belongings of the group, which included mattresses, food, clothes and blankets, were destroyed by JMPD in 2017 when they raided a traffic island under the R31 highway bridge on End Street in the CBD, which the people occupied as their home. Louise du Plessis, who works for Lawyers for Human Rights and assisted the group with taking their case to court, told Times Select they were still trying to locate the people and share the good news with them.
She described the judgment as a victory for all homeless people who constantly suffered abuse at the hands of police.
“If you care about our country and humanity you will celebrate this judgment. All of us have at some stage seen the metro police or police confiscate poor and homeless people’s blankets, trolleys, cardboards, clothes etc. Not many people will even twitch about it. But for people like the clients in the City of Joburg case, it is a devastating experience. Their belongings, which normally will have no or a minimum commercial value, are many times the only belongings they have. This appeal court judgment is not only a huge victory for homeless people, but is also a victory for us as a community, who ought to, like the appeal court has done, recognise the dignity of poor people,” Du Plessis explained.
She said the case would hopefully also be a warning to those municipalities that regularly destroyed, demolished and burned down homes of people who invaded land instead of finding a solution to address homelessness in the country.
In its submissions to the court, the city said it had an ongoing challenge of displaced people who resided on its streets, many of them evicted from their communities as a result of criminal activity or drug addiction.
The chief of metro police, Zwelibanzi Nyanda described the raid as a “cleanup” operation of the area conducted pursuant to the city’s bylaws.
He said the operation was prompted by numerous complaints lodged with the city by the various businesses trading around the traffic island and members of the public about the occupation of pavements designated for the purpose of customer and public vehicle parking by homeless people, public defecation and urination on the pavements, excessive rubbish and waste, public abuse of illicit drugs and the disposal of used syringes, theft, robberies and related crimes in the area.
The city and metro police, however, denied that any eviction was committed or that any shelter was destroyed during the cleanup operation.
They alleged their officials merely removed rubbish that was found unattended or abandoned, and disposed of it in a landfill. The city denied that any valuable personal items were removed and explained that its procedure during cleanup exercises that involved the removal of people’s personal belongings required the preservation of any valuable items, which would be inventoried and kept for collection by the owners.
A video taken by Nigel Branken, who had chanced upon the incident and managed to record the operation, was admitted into evidence.
It showed him arguing with the JMPD officials, telling them they were removing “people’s possessions”, to which one official responded that “these people are occupying a space which is not theirs”.
The footage also showed the officials indiscriminately gathering and throwing mattresses, blankets, bulging suitcases, bags and rucksacks into a truck without checking their contents.
The court a quo found that the video footage established that the JMPD officials, although not shown chasing away or threatening anyone as alleged by the applicants, were well aware they were removing “domestic goods which would be the typical material that homeless people would be using”.
While the court accepted that the JMPD officials did not inventory the property, it was highly sceptical of the claims for items such as cash, cellphones and identity documents, which one would normally keep on their person and hardly leave unattended on a public thoroughfare.
The court rejected the applicants’ claim that their shelters were demolished, as it was their own version that they were dismantled every morning and on that day too, and that the JMPD officials merely removed the loose materials they left on the traffic island.
The court a quo then dismissed the vindicatory claim on the basis that the property in issue was inadequately described, and had, in any event, been destroyed and could therefore not be returned.
The Johannesburg High Court initially dismissed a claim of damages by the homeless people, as it said it found that they could not properly describe a list of their belongings destroyed.