Evicted waste pickers win in court

Company must rebuild homes of the “Airfield Community” on land near Waterkloof base

By Tania Broughton

3 March 2023

The Gauteng High Court in Pretoria has ordered the homes of 32 waste pickers to be rebuilt, or for the waste pickers to be compensated. Illustration: Lisa Nelson

The homes of about 32 waste pickers must be rebuilt within 48 hours and they must be allowed to return to the land near Waterkloof Air Force Base where they have been living, the Gauteng High Court in Pretoria has ruled.

In a ruling handed down on Thursday, Judge Anthony Millar said that should New Africa Development (Pty) Ltd and New Africa Development Property Income Fund (Pty) Ltd not comply with the order, the companies must then pay each waste picker R5,000 in “compensation”.

He also ordered the two companies to pay the costs of the urgent application on a punitive scale.

Judge Millar said the waste pickers, known as the “Airfield Community”, had occupied the land since at least 2018.

Read the full judgment here

In their application, brought with the assistance of Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR), the waste pickers say they were approached in January by a representative of the two companies, which own the land, and told it was to be cleared and fenced for a property development.

When they asked for a court order, they were told the owner did not need one “to remove people from his own property”.

Over the next few days, fence posts were erected, but the community still had access to their shelters.

Then, on 13 January, they were given 30 minutes to pack their belongings. They refused and called their attorney. They were not removed, but the property was fenced, making access difficult.

On 17 January, they were again told to go. When they refused, a bulldozer arrived and their shelters were demolished and taken away on trucks along with their possessions.

They said they were powerless to do anything. They tried to take photographs but were told they would get a “klap” if they did.

They sought shelter under a nearby freeway bridge, where they have stayed since.

In opposing the application, the two companies initially challenged the issue of urgency. They noted that three weeks had passed since the eviction before the application was launched.

However, lawyers for the community said the community had only one mobile phone and it was lost during the eviction. It had taken them time to make contact with LHR and to give proper instructions.

Judge Millar said, “I cannot divorce the precarious socio-economic circumstances of the applicants from my consideration of urgency … The loss of a home is an unquestionable urgent matter.”

The companies said the waste pickers were not actually living on the property but were using it to store waste for their business.

Judge Millar said this was “contrived and a red herring”.

“Photographs taken by LHR before January 17 demonstrate beyond doubt that at least some of the shelters were also homes, occupied by the applicants … It was also never suggested that the property was left vacant and unattended at any time.”

He said the companies had argued that restoring the status quo was neither feasible nor possible because it was located close to the air force base and a mine, and it was part of a threatened ecosystem. It was dangerous for them to live there, it was contended.

“The applicants live in extremely humble circumstances without electricity or running water and a suggestion that any construction or activity by them would, now at least five years after the fact, present a danger is simply not capable of any fair-minded support,” said Judge Millar.

The judge noted that neither they, nor their lawyers, had ever been informed of any apparent danger previously.

He said the community had been evicted unlawfully without a court order.

He ordered the companies to immediately restore unrestricted access to the property, and to return the community’s personal possessions and building materials.

He said that should the companies not restore access within 24 hours of the grant of his order, the Sheriff, assisted by the SAPS, must take the necessary steps.

Should the shelters not be reconstructed within 48 hours, the companies must pay each of the applicants R5,000, to be paid into the account of LHR.

The companies were interdicted from evicting the community again without the leave of the court.