The man struggles to get back in his shack.
In the wake of the demolition of a Khayelitsha man’s home, Nicole Fritz argues that government needs to ensure it is not imposing misery on the vulnerable due its measures in these challenging times.
Even those of us predisposed to give the government some margin of slack right now given the enormity and unprecedented nature of the Covid-19 crisis have been left gobsmacked – not just at the seeming senselessness of some of the lockdown regulations but at the perverse incentives they’ve generated and a callousness with which they’ve been implemented.
But among the regulations are several provisions that have caused no controversy at all. These at least appear to reflect a government genuinely concerned for those they govern. These are the regulations prohibiting evictions during the lockdown.
The intent and objective of these particular regulations are clear: concern for the weakest and most vulnerable among us requires that, during a devastating pandemic and in what seems a particularly cruel winter, as few as is possible are required to go homeless and without shelter. That concern for individuals aligns with public health imperatives too: attempts to contain a disease spread by human traffic and contact must look to secure human settlement.
The recent footage of Bulelani Qolani, dragged naked from his shack in the Empolweni informal settlement in Khayelitsha and savagely assaulted by Cape Town law enforcement officials as they tore down the structure, has sparked outrage among South Africans.
The City of Cape Town has suspended the officers involved but insist they were right to take Bulelani Qolani’s shelter and make him homeless. Officials say they were not effecting a prohibited eviction but instead taking action against illegal land occupation.
A question to be asked though is: how does that distinction matter in any real (or humane) sense?
Tearing down people’s shelters and subjecting them to brutal assault for having sought shelter on City of Cape Town land is entirely destructive of the larger objective which the prohibition on evictions seeks to achieve: that we look to provide the protection we must to the most vulnerable in this crisis.
In a statement issued by City of Cape Town mayor, Dan Plato on Thursday, he sought to clarify that: “This particular area of Khayelitsha was illegally invaded during the first weeks of national lockdown and the City responded to requests from the local community to remove the illegally erected structures.”
The City has already faced recent legal action relating to demolitions of homes in the Empolweni informal settlement – a court having ordered that the persons whose homes were torn down be allowed to return to the site and that building materials be provided so that the 49 homes could be rebuilt.
Plato referred to this court case in explaining Cape Town officers’ destruction of Qolani’s home, insisting that the terms of the court order allows the City of Cape Town to “remove any new illegally erected structures with immediate effect”.
That may all be strictly true but replies of narrow legal-ness don’t get at the far more fundamental issues raised by this episode: At this particularly perilous time, who are our structures of government – national, provincial, local – looking to to serve? How do they govern? And for whom?
That a court deems that the City of Cape Town is allowed to remove illegally erected structures doesn’t demand of the city that it does so. No court is seriously going to complain that political actors seek to act with greater regard for the spirit of the Constitution, demonstrate more care and compassion, reach beyond the minimum they are required to do.
These are extraordinary times that are demanding of political leaders. Confronted with so vast and existential an unknown as the pandemic, responsible political leaders are required to weigh up different possible options in the best interests of those they govern (with often competing interests), knowing that at best they might arrive at justifiable decisions given the limits of our knowledge at this particular time, but without any guarantee that these are the right decisions.
Normal indicators of informed, responsible decision-making don’t necessarily hold right now. Ordinarily, we are critical of decisions that look to buy time or that hold out only interim resolution. We take these to be attempts by leaders to escape the full consequences of their decisions and potentially to prejudice long term more definitive resolution.
But that is not so in this time. This is a break glass in case of emergency moment. It doesn’t seem negligent to look to buy time. It seems sensible. It doesn’t seem irresponsible to secure interim resolutions because who honestly knows what our country and the world we emerge into will look like.
As they look to navigate this crisis without any compass fitted to a world with no North, this at least is true: they absolutely have to act to secure and protect the very basic fundamentals – like food and shelter – necessary to ensure each of our survival and the best chance of enduring this pandemic.
Ultimately when all this is at an end (and please let it end) and we must stand and survey the wastelands left us by the pandemic, the full horror of the thousands of deaths caused in this country, the many more that will be taken indirectly, and the extensive misery imposed by the stringent measures taken in response, there will be no going back, no trying to do it better.
Those in leadership will likely have to face that many of the measures they adopted inflicted needless misery. If they are to have comfort, any grace, it must be in the knowledge that they acted to relieve immediate suffering and to protect those most desperate. When the chips were down and the ground no longer certain, but a sea, the first protection was offered to the most vulnerable among us.
– Nicole Fritz is CEO of Freedom Under Law
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