How a determined community is fighting the army’s attempts to evict them

Happiness Village’s residents fear for their lives and face unlawful evictions, beatings and intimidation, legal action and shack demolitions

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Photo of a group of people

Ziyanda Nwazi with her child, flanked by Rose Golo (left) and Ncebakazi Qulu, say they do not want to be relocated. They have raised families in Marievale and their children attend schools in Nigel. Photos: Kimberly Mutandiro.

  • Since their unlawful eviction from their homes at the Marievale military base in 2017, the residents of Happiness Village informal settlement have fought for their right to remain on army land.
  • In and out of court ever since, helped by Lawyers for Human Rights, the residents say they have been terrorised by members of the SANDF.
  • The SANDF says the base is no place for a civilian settlement and it has applied to the Pretoria High Court for eviction.
  • The residents believe that mining interests lie behind the concerted efforts to evict them, but mining companies active and interested in the area flatly deny this.
  • The community will go to court to oppose the latest attempt to evict them.

“As l speak we have been served with final eviction papers,” Chris Koitsioe, Happiness Village community representative, told GroundUp in August.

He was referring to an application to evict them brought by the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) in the Pretoria High Court.

Lawyers for Human Rights says it is going to oppose the eviction, yet again.

A retired member of the SANDF, Koitsioe and his family were among about 100 families unlawfully evicted in November and December 2017 from army land in Marievale, Nigel.

The families had lived there for years. Koitsioe had lived seven years at Marievale while he was still in the military. After he retired in 2009, he had continued to live at the base.

In court papers the SANDF admits it did not take steps to see that people living on its land were active military personnel, and that over the years extended family and civilians came to occupy the Marievale base.

The Marievale residents overturned their eviction in court, but it wasn’t possible for all of them to return to their homes. Currently, only three families live in old barracks accommodation. The rest formed an informal settlement called Happiness Village, located near their previous residences.

Represented by Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR), they have been in and out of the high court in Pretoria ever since the 2017 eviction. Throughout this time, residents have reported persistent and brutal harassment by members of the military. Immigrant members of the community were excluded by the SANDF from re-accommodation and specifically targeted.

Marievale evictees at the Pretoria High Court in December 2018 after the court reaffirmed its previous order that 355 of the evictees be re-accommodated by the SANDF. But their application that the army was in contempt of the previous court order failed.

In July 2020, the army cut off Happiness Village from the world and placed Koitsioe effectively under house arrest in his shack. LHR intervened.

“We were unlawfully evicted from our old homes, brutalised and tortured by the army. Over the years, there have been countless attempts to unlawfully evict us from our Happiness Village homes,” says Koitsioe.

The residents have often claimed that mining interests lie behind these efforts to remove them. It would certainly make operations simpler for some mining companies if the inhabitants were removed. And a few residents were previously mining illegally themselves. But the mining interests we spoke to flatly deny any interest or involvement in the eviction of the Happiness Village residents.

The reasons given by the SANDF to the court for seeking to evict the residents is that the base is unsuitable, dangerous and unauthorised for civilians. “It is known as a national key point even though not officially so classified,” the SANDF said. None of the occupants have leases or pay for rent or for services, says the army.

The SANDF says it needs all accommodation for its active forces and the base cleared of civilians so that it can conduct military exercises. Marievale base has been earmarked for the relocation of the military equestrian branch from Potchefstroom.

Things improved after September 2020, when the SANDF met with the residents and LHR, and life “almost returned to normal”, says Koitsioe. “But then we began to see more mining prospectors coming.”

He believes: “It has become clearer that all these years our people have been traumatised because of minerals on this land”.

We spoke to some of the informal “zama zama” gold miners that used to live in Happiness Village before the eviction. The gold is right here in the soil, they told us.

The area is near the old Marievale mine, where informal gold miners have long operated. A few zama-zama miners used to live in Happiness Village but these individuals have since moved away.

Residents say some military personnel were privately benefitting and taking their cut from the zama-zama miners.

Brigadier General Mafi Mgobozi, Director Defence Corporate Communication, strongly denied these allegations: “The SANDF never protected any mining operations and is only interested in the protection of the military base and training area.”

“The SANDF is not involved in zama-zama activities and allegations of harassment of zama-zamas is not true. If there is information of SANDF members showing interest in benefitting from zama-zama operations, it must be reported to the relevant authorities for investigation.”

In court documents the SANDF said the zama-zama miners posed a threat to the security of the base and its weapons stores.

“The SANDF is not affiliated with any current or past mining operations in Marievale surroundings,” said Mgobozi.

Recently people have been seen surveying the land around Happiness Village. A section with trees where residents would fetch firewood has been fenced off. Trucks collect clay for making bricks.

“Brikor is not involved at all in evictions of the SANDF people,” said Garnett Parkin, Group CEO of Brikor, a brick and coal mining company.

“Our mining activities are not on residential land … As Brikor we do not evict people but we create jobs.”

He said Brikor has been operating in Marievale since 1993. Ilangabi, its wholly owned subsidiary, was granted mining rights around ten years ago. Brikor applied for further mining rights in 2014/15.

Parkin said, “We have not prevented people from fetching firewood but the area they fetch wood from is a mining area and they may be liable to injuries. They have to ask for permission first so they can be monitored. Over the years we have actually been donating coal to residents for use in their homes.”

“We have always suspected that mining was the reason behind the evictions. When we visited Happiness Village recently we saw mining activities in the area,” said Louise Du Plessis of LHR.

Zin Lebatu (left) and Rosa Sithole complained that they were stopped from fetching wood because of active mining in the area.

In August the residents were served with court papers by lawyers representing the army and the City of Ekurhuleni. The Ekurhuleni Office for Human Settlements has also delivered a formal relocation plan to LHR, detailing relocation options available for the residents.

“We are willing to support our clients on whatever decision they make based on the relocation plan. If they want us to oppose the eviction we will make another court application to do so,” said Du Plessis.

The relocation plan specifies that 86 open stands have been reserved in Zamani informal settlement in Nigel’s Duduza Township, 26km away. Those with no formal structures will be provided with a cement floor and corrugated iron sheeting that meets the minimum requirement for temporary emergency accommodation. The residents will be made beneficiaries of the John Dube housing project, set to start construction within the next year.

This means, as Koitsioe points out, the Marievale families, having already been once evicted, will be relocated two more times.

LHR’s Du Plessis said, “Our clients are against being moved to Zamani which is also temporary accommodation. The law prohibits that people be moved from one temporary shelter to another. It would be better that people be given permanent accommodation.”

“We received a video of burst sewage pipes in Zamani and there are also complaints that it is a flooding area. We are going to engage with the Office for Human Settlements regarding the relocation plan, citing what is being opposed by our clients.”

“What we have is only an application for eviction. We will be filing our answering affidavit after engaging with the Department,” said Du Plessis.

Siphamandla Nxumalo and his wife, Sisanda, in June 2020 after they refused alternative accommodation in Duduza. They were among the group evicted from their bungalows at Marievale Military Camp in 2017. They lived in this small shack erected by the SANDF in Happiness Village after the court overturned their eviction. The army also offered tents but the Marievale residents refused to move into a tent camp.

Ziyanda Ncwazi, who has lived in Marievale area since 2003, said, “We are being moved from the only home we have known for years all because the government is after minerals. It’s so heartbreaking. Our children were born here in Marievale before we were evicted and moved to Happiness Village.”

She said she did not want to live in a township. She is also particularly worried about taking her children out of their current schools.

“Are minerals worth more than our lives and those of our children?” she asked.

An Environmental Impact Assessment Report by Kongiwe Environmental for a potential gold reclamation project by Ergo Mining, published in August 2020, describes the residents of Happiness Village as a “vulnerable population” within the project area, “since they are generally economically disadvantaged, thus their resilience to the unhealthy environment they are often exposed to is very low”.

“Some residents had been living there for almost two decades. Some are former soldiers, military employees and their families; others have no connection to the SANDF … Most of the families that were evicted from the military residence now live in squalor in a makeshift informal settlement,” the report’s authors write.

Happiness Village has “approximately 99 shacks relying on two water access taps” and lacks adequate sanitation and reliable electricity.

However, according to Kongiwe, on the upside “Happiness Village is sufficiently far away not to be negatively impacted” by Ergo’s plans.

But Kongiwe also says it does “not foresee that there would be any significant employment creation specifically for Happiness Village” should gold reclamation go ahead.

Ergo Mining is an operating subsidiary of DRDGOLD. It’s business is not conventional mining but reclaiming minerals from old dumps. Its CEO, Niël Pretorius, told GroundUp in September 2020 that “The [mining] authorisations are conditional upon the conducting of public participation processes in which local communities are engaged to address their particular needs and concerns, and these would be addressed as far as the company can do so.”

“As matters stand currently, Ergo would expect to begin reclamation within the next four years.”

DMR spokesperson Nathi Shabangu said minerals known to be prevalent in the area are gold, clay, coal and aggregate.

Still operating are Ilangabi/Brikor with old order rights for clay and coal, while Westside Trading and Afrisam have old order converted rights for aggregate still in operation.

DMR was unaware of any mining-related evictions.

“Communities are expected to partake during the process of initiating the Social and Labour Plan (SLP). The inclusion of Marievale residents in some of the mining activities in terms of jobs depends on the skills, qualifications and experience required by the mine. The SLP regulations and the Mining Charter provides for the involvement of local residents,” according to DMR.

TOPICS:  Housing Human Rights Mining SANDF

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