The City of Cape Town and its DA-led municipality will probably be cheered on by many members of the chattering classes (those who channel their inner Rhoda Kadalie by constantly moaning about how the country is going to the dogs under “these people”) for justifying its unlawful and inhumane treatment of poor and destitute occupiers of municipal land by first invoking an imaginary law and then by invoking a non-applicable common law rule. But no matter how the City tries to justify its actions, these evictions (conducted without first obtaining a court order) remain unlawful.
“Legal interpretation,” wrote the late Robert Cover from Yale Law School back in 1986, “takes place in a field of pain and death”, because acts of legal interpretation often impose violence upon others. So, when a court orders the eviction of penniless people from their makeshift homes, it uses the violence of the law to rob them of their dignity, turning them into potential criminals in the process. At night many homeless people are forced to break the law when they have to trespass on private property if they were to grab even a few hours of fitful sleep, often in the cold and the rain. Property rights, so it seems, are indeed invoked against the vulnerable and marginalised “in a field of pain and death”.
It is for this very reason that section 26(3) of the Constitution limits property rights by prohibiting anyone – including a municipality – from evicting someone from their home, or having their home demolished, without an order of court made after considering all the relevant circumstances. The Prevention of Illegal Eviction from and Unlawful Occupation of Land Act (PIE) gives effect to this right, but extends the right to protect all those who unlawfully occupy not only homes but also land. An unlawful occupier protected by PIE (and who can therefore not be evicted from either land or home without a court order) is defined as “a person who occupies land without the express or tacit consent of the owner or person in charge, or without any other right in law to occupy such land”. In South Africa, only a court can order the eviction of any human being from either land or from a home.
On Wednesday 1 May 2013, the City of Cape Town’s so called “Anti-Land Invasion Unit” (a name harking back to the forced removals of the Apartheid era), acting like vigilantes, demolished the homes of 125 people who had unlawfully occupied land in Philippi on the outskirts of the city. At first the city claimed that this demolition and eviction was done in accordance with the imaginary “Protection of the Possession of Property Act”. There is no such Act on the statute books in South Africa: the city had lied about its existence and about having legal backing for its eviction without obtaining a court order.
After they were caught out in this lie, they provided another justification for the unlawful eviction.
The City, enthusiastically inventing a legal argument – “in a field of pain and death” – to justify its unlawful actions, invoked the common law notion of “counter-spoliation” which, it argued, allowed a landowner to resist illegal attempts to disturb their possession without obtaining a court order. Counter spoliation allows someone to retake possession of his or her property before the person has actually been deprived of that property. For example, if a thief snatches your bag in the street and you trip the thief and take back the bag you can invoke the principle of counter spoliation. However, you cannot go the thief’s house later that day and snatch back your bag. That would constitute an unlawful instance of vigilantism.
The City claimed that the structures were not occupied (although pictures of the evictions suggest this is not true as the personal belongings – including furniture and clothes – can clearly be seen inside the houses) and that the “Anti-Land Invasion Unit” was entitled to “continue to dismantle illegally built structures every time they are erected and before they are occupied.” But from a legal point of view, it is entirely irrelevant whether the structures were occupied or not.
In Ndlovu v Ngcobo; Bekker and Another v Jika the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) made it clear that PIE applies to the eviction of (who it inhumanely called) “squatters”, whom Harms JA defined as those who “unlawfully took possession of land”. In the same judgment Olivier JA referred to “the situation where an ‘informal settler’ (a squatter) moves onto vacant land without any right to do so and without the consent of the landowner or his or her agent”. In City of Cape Town v Rudolph and Others the Cape High Court correctly interpreted these statements as showing that PIE also applied to those who the City of Cape Town might call “land grabbers”.
As the PIE Act does not only protect those who occupy homes but also those who occupy land it is difficult (perhaps impossible) to see – especially in the light of the precedent of the High Court and the SCA quoted above – that even those homeless people who have settled on land and are still busy erecting informal shelters on the land they are occupying, falls outside the ambit of the protection of PIE.