Bulelani Qolani was bathing yesterday when he was forcefully removed from his home in Khayelitsha by the anti-land invasion unit of the City of Cape Town. The only discernible difference between the dehumanising evictions that occurred under apartheid and what happened on Wednesday is that the latter was filmed and shared by thousands on social media.

Officials’ contempt for human dignity, their callous disregard for the right to housing and the use of unnecessary force are familiar scenes that have played itself out in South Africa for centuries. How could an innocent man be forced out of his home, naked, in the middle of a bitter winter and in the height of a global pandemic, before seeing it demolished?

Moratorium on evictions 

Online outrage at the evictions has tended to emphasise the culpability of the City’s governing party, the DA, or exceptionalise Cape Town as a heartless or anti-poor city. But homes have been demolished by force in townships across South Africa over the last few weeks, despite a moratorium on evictions.

Playing party politics off such a grave injustice benefits nobody.

Instead, an honest reflection is needed of why some South Africans, in cities run by both the ANC and the DA, are treated with such contempt. It is has become something of a cliché, but South Africa is clearly a country of two nations. One nation, inhabited by most South Africans, lives a precarious existence, where homes are vulnerable to flooding, shack fires and demolition by the state. The national lockdown has meant that millions have gone without income and food. The other, much smaller and elite nation, lives in relative prosperity, where among the major remaining concerns under the national lockdown is when overnight holidays will be allowed. Despite one of the gravest recessions in modern history, this nation has not been compelled to sacrifice much by the state.

Inequality is SA’s defining feature.

Respondents to the South African Reconciliation Barometer, a national public opinion survey conducted by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation since 2003, have consistently identified the gap between the rich and the poor as the greatest source of division in society. Nowhere is inequality more visible than in unequal access to decent housing, particularly in Cape Town. In the 2018 Afrobarometer survey, unequal access to housing was among the main problems identified by South Africans.

These evictions have also occurred after the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement and the tragic murder of George Floyd in the USA. Internationally, there is now greater public scrutiny of policing and state violence against vulnerable groups.

In South Africa, the intersection of race and class produces its own perverse violence. Black people in the small elite nation are relatively sheltered from the brutality meted out, mostly by black officials. Black people in the larger, much poorer nation, relegated to peripheral townships, live in fear of their own state.

Officials involved in the eviction have now been suspended and the matter is being investigated by senior figures in local government.

‘Invaded’ the area 

But the City of Cape Town maintains that the land where the evictions took place belongs to the City, and that residents had “invaded” the area. Evictions were necessary, the City claims without a hint of irony, “to serve the broader community”. When the state invokes the language of an invasion, it is equally complicit in the violence carried out by those individual officials. It is saying that these people – like aliens – do not belong here and that they pose a threat. But land that belongs to the City is public land; it is meant to be used for the benefit of citizens.

The real injustice of the eviction is not simply that force was used inappropriately. It is rather that the City decided to use public resources to embarrass and harass a resident, instead of providing improved access to decent housing. Access to land is an emotive issue and the failure to reverse land dispossession remains one of the great failures of South African democracy. That citizens can still be forcefully removed and rendered homeless by a democratically-elected government is an even greater failure.

The national lockdown has shown the importance of public trust in the government. It is the glue that holds democracies together. But trust is earned, not given. SA must walk a long road to recover from the effects of Covid-19. Local and national government will need to restore trust by alleviating the worst effects of the economic crisis and prioritise the provision of decent housing opportunities.

Mikhail Moosa is the project leader for the South African Reconciliation Barometer at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation.

Article first published on News24