An ‘important purpose of section 34 [of the Constitution] is to guarantee the protection of the judicial process to persons who have disputes that can be resolved by law’ and that the right of access to court is ‘foundational to the stability of an orderly society. It ensures the peaceful, regulated and institutionalised mechanisms to resolve disputes, without resorting to self-help. The right of access to court is a bulwark against vigilantism, and the chaos and anarchy which it causes. Construed in this context of the rule of law and the principle against self-help in particular, access to court is indeed of cardinal importance’.The right guaranteed s34 would be rendered meaningless if court orders could be ignored with impunity:the underlying purposes of the right — and particularly that of avoidance of self-help — would be undermined if litigants could decide which orders they wished to obey and which they wished to ignore.
It is not surprising that section 26 of the Bill of Rights has become one of the sections most often invoked in cases being argued before the Constitutional Court. In a country in which many people do not have access to formal housing, one in which the property rights of some force many poor and destitute people to act in an unlawful manner, one in which such people often have no choice but to occupy land owned by others and build informal houses on that land to avoid absolute destitution, the right of access to housing guaranteed in section 26 will often come into play.
The situation is exacerbated by the failure of local, provincial and national governments to deal with this issue effectively and humanely and by officials whose elitist or extremely statist attitudes towards the poor and the homeless lead to often heartless and cynical attempts to force those who occupy land unlawfully to go and live elsewhere — anywhere — as long as it is “not-in-our-backyard”.
Yesterday, in Pheku and Others v Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Municipality (in a judgment authored by Justice Bess Nkabinde) the Constitutional Court once again came to the assistance of such a community. The Occupiers of Bapsfontein Informal Settlement had approached the court to challenge a High Court decision which found that where a Municipality declared an informal settlement a “disaster area” in terms of the Disaster Management Act it was permissible forcibly to relocate the residents of such an area and to demolish their homes. (Many years ago – during the apartheid era – Bapsfontein was infamous for hosting whites-only country dances in the hall depicted below. Country and Western singer Lance James regularly performed at these dances.)
The Bapsfontein informal occupiers had built their structures on land prone to develop “sinkholes”. They were then told that they would be “temporary moved” from this site, that their houses would be demolished and that no court order was required to do so as this action was taken in terms of the Disaster Management Act. The Municipality argued that such a “temporary move” was not an eviction at all. The Bapsfonetin residents were then forcibly removed from the area and their homes were then demolished. (So much for the care and compassion which the Ekurhuleni Municipality was required to show towards the informal occupiers and for the claim by the ANC politicians in that area that they always represent the best interests of the poor. These people might just as well have lived in a DA controlled municipality.)
The Court noted that section 55(2)(d) of the Disaster Management Act provides that evacuation is limited to cases where temporary action is necessary for the preservation of life and that this section had to be interpreted narrowly to ensure that it conformed to section 26 of the Constitution. Section 26(3) of the Constitution states that:
No one may be evicted from their home, or have their home demolished, without an order of court made after considering all the relevant circumstances. No legislation may permit arbitrary evictions.
The Court found that properly construed, section 55(2)(d) does not authorise eviction or demolition without an order of court. It pointed out that on its wording, the Act deals with “evacuation”. The word “evacuate” is generally used to describe what is done in a situation where people’s lives are at risk as a result of impending “disaster”. “Evacuate” means to “remove from a place of danger to a safer place.” The section could only be invoked where the people concerned required immediate removal to a safe temporary shelter, away from the disaster area, in order to preserve their lives.
If one reads this section carefully it had to mean that the Act ordinarily applies only to temporary removal from a disaster stricken area to a temporary shelter. It implies that those evacuated may return to their homes, if possible. This was not the case here where the Bapsfonetin Informal Occupiers were going to be removed permanently. Evacuation is not the equivalent of eviction, much less of a demolition. On the Municipality’s own admission, no purpose would have been served by removing the applicants without demolishing their homes because they would otherwise have returned to Bapsfontein. Evidently, this is not what section 55(2)(d) sanctions.
What was required was to demonstrate that there was urgency in the evacuation and that this was done in order to save lives. However, as the Constitutional Court pointed out, the facts do not suggest that there was any need for an urgent evacuation of the Bapsfontein community at all, and although the court did not say so, this suggests that the Municipality had used the sinkhole excuse to justify an eviction without obtaining a court order as required by the Constitution.
Conversely, the history of this matter shows that the Municipality never regarded the relocation of the applicants to be urgent to warrant drastic measures of unauthorised removal and demolition of shelters. This is fortified by the fact that Bapsfontein was identified as a hazardous area as early as 1986; its first sinkhole was identified in 2004; the first commissioned report was delivered in June 2005 and the second report in September 2005; no action was taken in response to these reports for four years after they were delivered, until 2009, when another report was commissioned and delivered; and only in 2010 did the Municipality finally start taking action to relocate the residents from Bapsfontein. An evacuation does not entail the demolition of peoples’ homes or an indefinite removal. The DMA does not seek to achieve this. If the purpose of the DMA were to authorise demolition and eviction without an order of court, it would have said so. It does not. The forcible removal of the applicants amounts to an eviction, an indefinite removal from Bapsfontein. The deprivation is, in the circumstances, inimical to the right in section 26(3).
The High Court had therefore erred in dismissing the application for an urgent interdict preventing the eviction of the residents and the demolition of their homes as it had failed to consider the relevant circumstances. These include whether: (a) the disaster was sudden to warrant the hasty relocation; (b) Bapsfontein could be rehabilitated; (c) the Municipality had established disaster management and relocation plans and strategies as well as their implementation; (d) there was loss of life or an imminent threat to life; (e) alternative land has been made available or could reasonably be made available; and (f) the applicants are long term occupiers in Bapsfontein.
The High Court instead approached the matter on the assumption that the Disaster Management Ac was applicable and urgent removal was necessary. In the absence of evidence, the Court compared the situation of the applicants with that of people faced with sudden emergency but failed to assess whether the circumstances warranted evacuation under the Act.
In the light of the finding that the removal of the Bapsfontein Informal Occupiers and the demolition of their homes were unlawful, the Court found that the Municipality has an obligation to provide them with suitable temporary accommodation. To this end, the Municipality was ordered to identify land in the immediate vicinity of Bapsfontein for the relocation of those who had been evicted. The Municipality was also ordered to engage meaningfully with them on the identification of the land.
Furthermore, the Municipality was ordered to ensure that the amenities provided to those evicted and people resettled in terms of the court’s order are no less than the amenities and basic services provided to them as a result of the relocation of March 2011. Because these orders were quite far reaching the Constitutional Court issued what is known as a structural interdict. This happens where the Court feels that it was necessary to retain supervision over the implementation of the order to ensure that it was complied with.
The Municipality was therefore required to file a report in the Constitutional Court confirmed on affidavit by no later than 1 December 2012 regarding steps taken in compliance with the order issued by the court. The applicants would then have the right, within 15 days of the filing of the Municipality’s report, to lodge affidavits in response to the report.
This order would ensure that the Municipality implements the order of the court properly and would protect the vulnerable and marginalised applicants from exploitation and abuse. Although the Municipality might feel aggrieved by this order, it was clearly necessary in order to protect the poor and homeless. And once again — without even having to wait for an assessment of the work done by the Constitutional Court, the cabinet has been provided with a rather graphic illustration of the way in which the Constitutional Court stands up for the poor and how its judgments protect the poor from the exploitation and heartless decision of the ANC-led Municipality.BACK TO TOP