On Monday morning Smutsville was once again turned into a hotbed of anger as members of the community took to the streets to vent their frustrations regarding the lack of housing and land to build on. This, they claimed, was because no reasonable time frame had been given to them by the municipality since the uprising in June last year.
“Promises have been made, but not kept by the municipality,” one resident insisted. “We don’t even need houses, we will build our own. We just need land to build them on.” said another.
Though the demonstration was not as lengthy or indeed all-encompassing as the 15 June riots of last year, the sound of stun grenades and rubber bullet gunfire filled the air once again, along with the taste of teargas and the acrid smell of burning rubber.
It is believed that the Public Order Police, who hail from Oudtshoorn, had got a whiff of what was going to happen, because it wasn’t an hour after the first tyres were set ablaze on Oestervanger Street outside the old U-Save shopping Centre, that they appeared in force.
According to witnesses on the ground, it was just after 1am when residents first saw the tyre flames. By 2am the armed and armoured Public Order Police were already on the streets, chasing those involved in lighting these fires. These scenes carried on through the predawn hours of the morning.
Ex Ward 1 Councillor Irene Grootboom said that she was awoken soon after 4am in her home, also on Oestervanger Street, by her grandson’s screaming.
“I got up to find three cops holding down one of my family members in the kitchen,” she told us, “When I shouted at them, I saw one of them took a 9ml pistol out of his holster, then he put it back. My screaming woke my daughter Charmornay, who also rushed out and shouted Why are you doing this in front of my son.” A cell phone video of this whole incident was going ’viral’ amongst the community members by the time the sun came up, and Irene said that her children were still traumatised hours later.
But by 7am it seemed that things had mostly calmed down, with only the occasional clashes between the community and the ever-present ‘POP’s members. The original fires were extinguished, but others were lit on other roads in the crowded suburb.
Community members were out in force, though obviously wary of the uniformed men determined to bring Smutsville back to order. As crowds gathered many were asking why demonstrations in other areas such as Keurhoek and Nekkies had produced positive results, yet they were still awaiting a meaningful response from the municipality.
The arrival of Knysna’s Acting Municipal Manager Phumla Makoma and Head of Disaster Management and Social Services Richard Meyer seemed to calm things down somewhat, especially when they engaged with Councillor Davis and community representatives Bongani Dyani and Thersius Jones. One of the leaders of the ‘POP’s team also joined the conversation.
Eventually, however, the municipal officials were persuaded that it was the Executive Mayor that the community wished to deal with. “It’s a must issue,” said Dyani, “We really need to have the Mayor here.”
There were several tense minutes of waiting as Councillor Davis battled to get hold of the Mayor, who was in a meeting at the time. Another fire was built and lit further up Oestervanger, and the POPs crew, who had seemingly been cool, calm and collected for the past hour, immediately moved forward to disperse the crowd gathered around it.
When Mayor Mark Willemse arrived there was chanting and singing, but it was more than evident that this was not in an effort to make him feel welcome to the volatile situation. Before he was given the opportunity to address the gathered crowd, both Jones and Dyani spoke through the loud-hailer, followed by Councillor Davis.
“This is not a political gathering,” said Dyani, “We just want to know the progress of the housing promises.” He continued “We are not afraid to go to jail, but we must not get involved in violence.” He also suggested giving the Mayor and Councillor a week’s deadline to give them positive feedback, but only a week. “If we do not get a response in seven days, we will mobilise the whole community,” he said.
Councillor Davis then addressed the crowd, attempting to outline the progress he believed had been made with the housing plans. But it was difficult for him to be heard over the angry baying of the community, who shouted down his efforts to address them.
When Mayor Willemse spoke he too battled to keep the community from talking over him. The clamour rose to a roar when he mentioned that the process of planning and building subsidised housing could take five years. His attempts to explain that the housing planned for Smutsville was in an advanced stage of that process fell on deaf ears. When the Mayor, seemingly as frustrated as the crowd, turned to walk back to his vehicle an uproar ensued and, no doubt sensing things might take a turn for the worse, the Public Order Police members advanced forward, with one of their armoured vehicles swinging in to park in front of the crowd.
A period of intensity ensued, filled with frustrated shouts of the community members, especially seeing the armed POPs personnel stepping forward again. Fortunately no-one from either side took it a step further, and eventually, the shouting subsided a little, though it still was patently obvious that the Mayor, who had turned back to address the crowd, was not going to get a word in.
Eventually, Bongani Dyani took the loud-hailer and again suggested to the crowd that the councillor and mayor be given a week to produce a timeline for Smutsville’s housing plan.
As the community ruminated over this, the Mayor was given the opportunity to speak again. He said that whilst he understood their frustrations, procedures had to be followed when it came to low-cost housing.
“Councillor Davis is working very hard to get these processes to happen as quickly as possible,” he said, adding “Last year in June I made a commitment that we would ensure that all the necessary processes would happen. Please understand we work according to conditions. This is a National and Provincial Government matter. They have to give us a clear mandate to proceed. The municipality doesn’t pay (for housing). We appeal to you to be patient – I understand that it takes a long time.”
“All I can do is ensure that the process happens. We do the best we can with the limited resources that National Government gives us. That is where we are now.”
Once again he was bombarded with shouts from the crowd, and Dyani took the loud-hailer to calm them down. He then responded to the mayor’s address, saying that the community knew full well about processes, but that they couldn’t be told that there is no time frame.
Thersius Jones then spoke. “We fully agree with what you say,” he said through the loud-hailer, “But last year Bonginkosi Madikizela told us that we can take the land on the dune. He didn’t say wait. He said build.” Jones was referring to the site visit paid by the Western Cape Minister of Human settlement soon after the June 2018 riots.
This once again stirred the crowd up to a crescendo, and it took some effort for Dyani to calm them down so that he could be heard. He repeated his earlier call to give the authorities a week to produce a timeline but made no bones about what should be done if this was not forthcoming.
“Let us not even threaten them with anything,” he said, “Let us get answers. If we don’t get answers that we are satisfied within seven days, we occupy the land.”
With the departure of the Mayor a few minutes after 10am, the crowd slowly dissipated, though still in heated discussion.
With so many born and bred Smutsville residents simply having nowhere to build, and in far too many cases several generations of the same family having no choice but to live on the same small property, the dire lack of housing land is always going to be a very sensitive issue for the municipality, and indeed the community of Sedgefield at large.