It is hoped that the meeting of Thursday 14 March, where Smutsville community leaders, Mayor Mark Willemse and other councillors finally sat around the table to hammer out their differences, will have a long-lasting, positive effect on returning Sedgefield to a peaceful state.
This after another housing demonstration had erupted into a riot, with the community citing that no meaningful progress had been made by local government on the issue of land in Smutsville. 39 people were arrested and taken into custody, and police are investigating a case in which a Groenvlei resident is alleged to have shot a Smutsville resident.
Clashes between residents of Smutsville, SAPS, Public Order Police Service (POPS) and even some residents of Groenvlei continued for almost 24 hours before consultation between the Knysna Mayor and community leaders finally resulted in a peaceful resolution.
This demonstration began on Wednesday evening, when a public meeting held at Smutsville Community Hall turned to chaos, with the hall emptying during a mass walkout almost an hour after the meeting had begun.
The purpose of the meeting was for Mayor Mark Willemse and other Council officials to give feedback on the issue of the shortage of land and housing in Smutsville. This after the seven-day limit given to them during a demonstration on 2 March, which in turn was a ‘follow on’ to the demonstrations in June last year.
With the hall jam-packed with local residents, not only from Smutsville but also other parts of Sedgefield, including committee members from the Sedgefield Ratepayers & Residents Association, there were many who couldn’t even get in.
When the Mayor, Ward Councillor Davis and Human Settlements Manager Mawethu Penxa began with a preamble as to how the housing process works, the community members began voicing their opinions that it was just more of the same stuff that they had been hearing since last year. Soon it was difficult for speakers to be heard above the noise – and some loudly voiced challenges from one or two Smutsville community leaders were all it took to rally the crowd and turn the meeting onto its head.
But whilst the mass walkout had surely already spoken volumes to the team at the ‘top table’, things got even uglier in the next few minutes.
The Mayor and Councillors Wasserman and Davis had stayed a while after the walkout, to try and answer a barrage of questions asked by some who had not left. But when they stepped outside just a few minutes later it was discovered that three tyres on Councillor Davis’ vehicle had been slashed. Furthermore, a fire was burning in the road blocking the exit from the community hall car park. The blaze was dangerously close to the Mayor’s car, and it was only after some careful manoeuvring that he could drive it safely away. Such was the mood of the crowd that Councillor Davis drove his vehicle away on the three flat tyres.
This seemed to set the tone for the night, and there was no doubt that a resurgence of last year’s riots was on the cards. Fires were lit in the middle of many of Smutsville’s roads and units of the SAPS Public Order Policing were called in to try and contain any unlawful behaviour. Clashes happened throughout the night and into the next morning. Residents of Groenvlei – particularly those on Begonia Street, watched in trepidation as fires were lit on top of the dune and burning tyres sent rolling down to the houses below.
Groups of youths gathered on the hilltop, hurling insults and threats and whatever they could physically throw at the houses below.
During the course of Thursday morning the riot flared up several times, with POPS members determined to keep it under control, and at least some rioters equally determined to create more chaos.
Then at around mid-afternoon, a group of community leaders decided to try a different tactic and called on the Smutsville residents to join a peaceful mass march into Sedgefield village. From eyewitness accounts the huge group stayed tight as it moved along the suburban roads, singing and chanting, and behaving peacefully. A Law Enforcement van drove slowly behind them.
The group moved onto the N2 at the traffic lights and stopped so that both directions of traffic on the National highway was blocked.
After spending some time at that intersection the protesters regrouped once again and walked down the dual carriageway to the Egret Road intersection, still blocking both eastbound and westbound lanes.
They were met there by a contingent of members from SAPS Knysna. Via loud hailers mounted on one of the vehicles the singing crowd was informed by Head of Visible Policing Colonel Gogwana that the highway would be opened, no matter what it took.
“Please get the women and children off the road,” he added.
Community representatives Bongani Dyani and Thersius Jones, along with several others stepped forward to challenge the Colonel, and a heated debate ensued. The protest leaders stated that they would not leave the N2 unless a meeting with the Mayor happened first. Meanwhile, the rest of the protesting throng sat down on the tar – determined not to be moved.
One of the SAPS members called Mayor Willemse on his cell phone. At first the Mayor was not at all keen to come to Sedgefield after the debacle of the previous night’s meeting, but eventually, it was arranged that he would meet with a small group of representatives, who could then report back to the community.
Further negotiations with the police then ensued, and the demonstrators eventually agreed to make their way on the left side of the highway to the taxi rank where they would await feedback from the community leaders. This meant that the police could at least open the Knysna-bound side.
Once again the protesters formed a tight throng and moved as a solid group, this time only using the left side of the dual carriageway.
Then it seemed that all hell broke loose. The booms of stun grenades and the crack of rifles shooting rubber bullets and launching tear gas canisters suddenly erupted and the orderly group shattered. Panicking people fled in all directions.
It is believed that this could only have been the result of bad timing. A POPS unit coming from the George side had come face to face with the marching crowd and, seemingly unaware of the agreement just made with the SAPS Knysna members, opened fire with whatever it took to quash a potential riot.
Water canons shot powerful jets of blue dye as the people ran, and POPS members chased them on foot, arresting those they caught.
Village residents living near the N2 darted into their homes, quaking at the commotion going on around them.
Meanwhile, up on the dune a different sort of terror was unfolding. A crowd of Smutsville residents had been standing on the top, watching the commotion on the N2. Among them was a thirty five-year-old carpenter Mervyn Stuurman and his girlfriend Rene Mars. Rene explained later that Mervyn had finished work early after injuring his finger, and, after being dropped at U-Save by his boss, had come to find his girlfriend to get the keys for the house they shared.
But as they stood there, looking down, a rifle shot suddenly rang out and a bullet thudded into the earth at their feet.
Everyone hit the ground in fear, wondering what was going on as there weren’t any police in sight. Moments later they stood up, gingerly.
“As soon as we got up we heard another rifle shot and dropped down again,” Rene told us. But this time Mervyn was crying in pain.
“When he lifted up his shirt we saw the blood,” she said, “He had been hit in the stomach.”
Weakened by his wound, Stuurman had to be carried down the hill, back into Smutsville, and then transported to the U-Save car park where he was fetched by an ambulance. He is still recovering in George Provincial Hospital, but reportedly no longer in the ICU.
It was later reported that a Groenvlei resident had aimed his firearm up the side of the dune and shot at the crowd. SAPS have confirmed that an attempted murder docket has been opened to investigate this incident.
That evening, in the old Sedgefield Council Chambers, a heated meeting took place, with several community leaders from Smutsville and Sedgefield facing off against Mayor Willemse, Councillor Michelle Wasserman who heads up the Planning and Integrated Human Settlements Portfolio, and Ward 1 Councillor Davis.
Arguments slewed back and forth for some time, but it soon became evident that both parties were at least beginning to listen to one another, and a degree of understanding slowly started rising to the surface.
Rodney Nay, who has been working alongside the Smutsville community through the ‘One Sedgefield’ movement, was also present at the meeting. “Finally it seemed that the anger was dissipating and a structured approach to the situation was being put on the table,” he said later.
This included the Municipality’s response to the four points that the Smutsville community needed to be addressed:- The availability of land for self-build homes, the program timeline for provision of formal housing, the long-term vision for human settlements, and the provision of basic services.
These topics were each covered, and a timeline for the construction of 220 subsidised homes presented, with construction starting within 10 to 12 months. When the meeting ended it seemed that at last the state of intense confrontation had been diffused, and after handshakes all round, the community leaders went back to the streets of Smutsville to give residents the feedback.
It had the desired effect, it seems. Fires were extinguished, roads were cleared of burnt debris, and exhausted demonstrators went to bed.
At last, peace descended, and it is hoped that residents living on either side of the dune could at least start shedding some of the intense stress of the previous 24 hours.
Sadly, the aftermath left behind by the riot has left Sedgefield reeling, and the community splintered in so many ways. Anger that so often accompanies fear has understandably boiled over and vented too freely on social media platforms. Whether the vehement racial outbursts from extreme elements of both Smutsville and the town itself will leave scars on the community spirit for which Sedgefield is so famous, remains to be seen.