A South African court last week made a landmark judgment concerning housing rights of the urban poor when it ruled unconstitutional plans by Johannesburg city to conduct evictions from ‘bad buildings’.
Judge Mahomed Jajbhay of the South African High Court ruled that the City of Johannesburg’s housing policy fails to comply with the Constitution of South Africa because it does not cater for the needs of the inner city poor. He ordered the city to devise and implement a comprehensive plan to cater for people living in the inner city of Johannesburg who are in desperate need of accommodation.
The South African constitution is very clear on the housing rights of its citizens. There are also several well formulated housing programmes of the government both at the central and local levels. However, at times there appears to be disconnect in implementation.
More than 300 residents went to court challenging the Johannesburg Metro’s practice of evicting poor people from allegedly unsafe buildings onto the inner city streets. In his ruling the judge dismissed the eviction applications brought by the City of Johannesburg against these residents. He also interdicted the City from evicting or seeking to evict the residents until such time as adequate alternative accommodation in the inner city area has been provided.
The judgment, which gives a quotation from “Housing Rights Legislation “, a 2002 dated publication of the United Nations Housing Rights Programme, a major component of the Global Campaign for Secure Tenure and a joint initiative between UN-HABITAT and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), makes it clear that the poor people in so-called “bad buildings” of the inner city of Johannesburg must be given access to a home in the inner city area if the city wants to evict them from accommodation it considers unsafe.
According to the residents, the city’s practice of clearing so-called “bad buildings” in the inner city is unconstitutional. A spate of forced evictions in the inner city areas of Johannesburg since 2001 has been officially justified in the name of the Johannesburg Inner City Regeneration Strategy (ICRS). A key component of this programme is the clearance of an estimated 235 “bad” buildings, which are perceived to be sources of degeneration and crime.
Thousands of South Africans live in “bad buildings” because they cannot afford decent accommodation in the private residential market, nor any of the chronically over-subscribed social housing units available in the inner city. In research done in 2004 and 2005, the Geneva-based Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE) and the Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS) found that the majority of occupants of the buildings were ordinary, poor South Africans engaged in a daily struggle to survive, and that they were the victims rather than the perpetrators of crime. The research also showed that while many of the buildings did require urgent maintenance and services, conditions in them did not warrant the use of apartheid-era legislation to clear them of people.
The case elicited massive support from COHRE, a key partner of UN-HABITAT. COHRE and the Global Campaign for Secure Tenure and the United Nations Housing Rights Programme (UNHRP) have several joint activities. Commenting on the ruling, Jean du Plessis, the COHRE Deputy Director said, “We welcome the ruling of the High Court effectively banning evictions from ‘bad buildings’ without the provision of alternatives in Johannesburg. We are pleased to note that this is in accordance with South Africa’s new Constitution and with various international legal standards, including the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which South Africa has yet to ratify.”