It is hoped that an agreement between the Smutsville community and Knysna Municipality, with input from the Western Cape Minister of Human Settlements Bonginkosi Madikizela, will calm residents and prevent a reoccurrence of the recent riots in Sedgefield. This said, nothing has been finalised yet, and proposals originally made may well have changed, so the entire community waits with bated breath.
Friday 15 June 2018 will surely be remembered by Sedgefield residents as the day things very nearly fell apart. It was a day of anger, a day of violence, commotion, and emotionally charged frustration. It was also a day that boiling points were reached and where misunderstanding fuelled animosity and a great deal of distrust.
Burning tyres, blocked roads, clashes with riot police, tear gas, rubber bullets – these are not things that Sedgefielders can relate to, being a community that for the most part lives in peace with one another. So the chaos of that day has left many shocked and bewildered as to how it could have happened.
In the weeks before, a housing protest by a number of residents in a group called ‘Lank Gewag’ got the ball rolling. Earlier in the month they had started marking out plots on Municipal property on the southern side of the dune above the Smutsville School. This was after decades of sitting on housing waiting lists and listening to what they describe as empty promises from municipal representatives. Even then, when their unofficial demarcation got the attention of the Municipality, the members agreed to halt any construction pending a meeting with the Municipal Housing Department set for five days later.
But the cancellation of this meeting was the final straw, and the group decided to escalate their campaign to get their voices heard. On the evening of Thursday 8 June they started mobilising members to join a ‘toi toi’. Tyres were lit at the intersection of Volstruis and Oestervanger, the entrance to Smutsville, and the group immediately had the attention of local law enforcement.
“But we still wanted it to be a peaceful protest,” one of the Lank Gewag committee members later told us.
Fearing the worst, local authorities called in back-up including SAPS members from the Crime Prevention Unit. No-one is sure who spooked who in the early hours of the next morning, but the first ‘shots’ – either tear gas canisters or rubber bullets – were reportedly heard at 4.48am and from then on things very quickly got out of hand. The demonstration quickly degenerated into an all-out riot, resulting in injury, damage to property and, perhaps less visible but no less important, the serious damage of trust and relationships.
It was a recipe for disaster. The numbers of angry residents grew as the community became more and more incensed by the huge police presence, which soon included the armed and armoured members of Public Order Police Service (riot police). The streets of Smutsville/Sizamile became a war zone. Rocks were thrown by adrenaline charged, adolescents who seemed fearless in the face of the authorities, whilst volleys of rubber bullets and teargas from the riot police were indiscriminate.
In a quieter moment, journalists on the scene were shown doors to family homes that had been kicked down, one resident describing how she had stood in front of her handicapped son when the riot police had burst in shooting. Another, on the other side of Smutsville and still dressed in her pajamas, complained that her eight month old baby was battling to breathe after a teargas canister had landed on their property whilst they were still in bed.
Residents showed welts and bruises where they had been shot with rubber bullets, some numerous times. Many claimed they had had nothing to do with the riot – but had still fallen victim to the SAPS members’ determined ‘all or nothing’ approach.
“We took a beating. Smutsville took a serious beating,” one community leader later told us.
Meanwhile, Sedgefield residents living in the Groenvallei and Meedingsride areas watched in horror and no small amount of panic, as protesters – mostly adolescents – set tyres on fire and attempted to roll them down the hill towards the homes below. One man threw a burning mattress down whilst others, realising the bush was too thick to let the tyres through, started throwing petrol bombs. Police members, Security tactical teams and COP volunteers fought hard to get the youngsters, who seemed bent on destruction, off the dune whilst firefighters, with the assistance of the ‘Working on Fire’ helicopter, managed to extinguish the flames.
In Smutsville seven people had been arrested and were in custody. Whilst there seemed to be no more shooting there was still a great deal of anger and frustration. Eventually, it was down to a standoff on Oestervanger Street, with members of the community filling the road and car park outside the USAVE shopping centre, and the armed riot police forming a human wall across the road further down.
The arrival of Mayor Mark Willemse, and Municipal Manager Kam Chetty did little to calm the crowd down, and though the mayor listened to the demands presented by the community, which included the release of the protesters in custody, the crowd was too fired up to take heed of his attempts to explain the process forward. When it became clear that those arrested would remain in custody, the protesters bristled even more, and as the Mayor walked back to his vehicle with a police escort, a stone was thrown in his direction. In retaliation, the riot police immediately opened fire at the crowd.
Pandemonium ensued. As residents young and old scrambled to get out of the line of fire, people stumbled and tripped over one another. Some fell as they were hit by rubber bullets, others were trampled underfoot in the melee. Probably the worst injured was Doreen Nguma (53) whose leg was totally snapped just above the ankle. As the chaos moved past her into Smutsville the ambulance could come in and whisk her off to hospital. At the time of going to press she is still there.
Things eventually became calmer, though there were isolated incidents of unrest for the rest of the day.
The following morning, whilst the greater Sedgefield community was still reeling in shock, it seemed some good news for the Smutsvillers finally arrived in the form of Western Cape Minister of Human Settlements Bonginkosi Madikizela. He and Knysna Municipality’s Housing Manager Mawethu Penxa met with a committee of residents and together they went to the various potential housing sites around Smutsville.
Madikizela told the committee that the municipal land behind the school – which had been earmarked by ‘Lank Gewag’ – was available for the residents to put up their informal homes, as long as they agreed to allow space for services to be put in at a later date, planning for which would be demarcated by the municipality.
This was confirmed at a meeting two days later in which the Lank Gewag committee sat with Penxa and members of his team. Housing waiting lists were also discussed – with a plan to ‘clean them up’ for accuracy, so that the correct amount of beneficiaries could be ascertained. The committee gave the municipality until Saturday 30th June to finalise the plan.
A follow-up meeting was held a week later (25 June), and whilst the committee was not prepared to tell the media what changes or new proposals were put on the table by the municipality, it was evident that all was not well. Rather than release any information themselves, they have requested that the Municipal Manager and other relevant officials attend the public meeting at 7pm on 27 June (the date of this publication) to explain to the community exactly what the plan is.