New S. Africa Confronts Squatters : Housing: Wreckers destroy shanties even as goal for new construction goes unmet.


On a grassy hill, in easy view of Johannesburg's glittering skyline, the new South Africa began to look distressingly like the old this week.

Using horses and armored vehicles, nearly 300 police and soldiers fired teargas, rubber bullets and stun grenades to help forcibly evict an estimated 2,000 impoverished blacks who had built an illegal shantytown beside a working-class white suburb.

Scores of forlorn squatters wandered amid the devastation Thursday, four days into the pre-Christmas eviction, as rumbling front-end loaders razed their shacks and flatbed trucks hauled away twisted tin roofing, smashed timbers and other rubble. Half a dozen fires poured black smoke into a cerulean sky.

Women nursed infants under tattered umbrellas, or sat on soggy mattresses beside dusty pots and pans. Miriam Budas, 37, even washed her clothes and hung them to dry between two charred poles, all that remained of her now-demolished hut.

"We will stay here in the field," she insisted, as her two children sat listlessly on the ground. "I have no work and no place else to go."

The scene was an unsettling reminder of the "forced removals" of the apartheid era, when the white minority regime brutally uprooted an estimated 3.5 million blacks--officially called "surplus people"--and dumped them on barren land in remote reservations called "homelands."

But this expulsion came after months of legal battles, and a court order backed by the democratically elected City Council supported by President Nelson Mandela's black-led government. Instead of being dumped in the distant bush, the squatters were offered temporary shelter in nearby townships and eventual resettlement in government housing projects.

"This land belongs to the Johannesburg City Council," said Charl van der Merwe, a deputy sheriff who is supervising the eviction. "These people were squatting here illegally. I have a court order to dismantle and remove all the structures that were erected here."

Legal or not, the forcible eviction highlighted an increasingly painful problem for Mandela's government. The abolition of apartheid-era laws that banned blacks from living in white areas has led to an explosion of squatter camps in and around major cities, exacerbating an upsurge in crime, illegal drug use and other social ills.

Cyril Ramaphosa, secretary-general of the African National Congress, the dominant party in the government, blamed conservative white farmers Wednesday for what he called "unprecedented land occupations," saying they had evicted tenant farm workers in fear that they would claim the farms under government land-restitution plans. Farmers' groups denied the charge.

But the housing crisis is not new. The government last year estimated that as many as 10 million people--nearly one fourth the country's population--lived in backyard shacks, rural mud-walled huts and other substandard dwellings.

Since then, the shortage has worsened as millions of illegal immigrants from impoverished Mozambique and other neighboring countries have flooded across the newly opened borders in search of jobs.

And the government's plan to build 1 million subsidized homes in five years is hopelessly behind schedule, with only about 20,000 homes built since Mandela was sworn in nearly 20 months ago.

As a result, many neighborhoods--from well-heeled suburbs to dirt-poor slums--have awakened in recent months to find "land invasions" in backyards and vacant lots, in public parks and bird sanctuaries, along stream beds and beside major highways.

In Tokoza township, east of Johannesburg, squatters ironically occupied land set aside for low-cost housing for the homeless, delaying development efforts. In other areas, police have moved in when squatters stoned cars, built barricades and occupied government buildings.

Although the courts have generally backed neighborhood groups, a judge denied an appeal Wednesday by the Greater Johannesburg Metropolitan Council for blanket legal authority to evict squatters.

Rand Supreme Court Justice J.P. Roux warned that wholesale expulsions would lead to "social, ethnic and economic warfare."

Here in Moffat Park, behind ugly hills of yellow mine tailings just south of Johannesburg, the first squatters arrived in March. By last week, about 500 tattered cardboard shacks, rusting tin-roofed shanties and flimsy plastic lean-tos covered the lush hills and gullies of a suburban park.

The squatters drew water from a nearby stream, defecated in the field, used machetes to chop down trees for firewood and terrorized nearby homeowners.

"We've become crime-ridden," complained Philip Botha, 55, a retired banker who drank with several friends as they watched the demolition Thursday. He said the squatters stole pet ducks, rabbits and playground equipment from a nearby school, broke into homes and cars, and cut telephone and electric wires.

Frustrated homeowners went to court to seek an eviction order. They also stopped paying municipal water, sewage and other rates in protest.

Heavy machinery, trucks and wrecking crews finally arrived Monday. The army set up camp on a nearby hill, complete with horses and motorcycles, while police patrolled from armored vehicles. Violence quickly erupted.

"The people threw stones and wood, so we dispersed them with stun grenades, rubber bullets and teargas," Police Capt. Stefan Wynbenga said. One man was injured and three arrested, he said.

By Thursday, most of the squatters had left on their own or had boarded buses and trucks sent by the City Council.

But several hundred remained, defiant and determined to stay in the park after the police leave.

Although the tin walls of her shack were already on a truck, Thando Khambule, 23, said she would not move because men and women were kept separately at the city shelter. She was scornful of local homeowners.

"They say this is a park, a place for children to play and dogs to walk," she said bitterly. "But we are people, and we are suffering. All I want is a job."

Nearby, Robert Smith, a white businessman who heads the local ratepayers' association, shook his head as he surveyed the field of twisted rubble and broken dreams.

"It's very sad," he said. "But these people have been promised so many things. And they think there are jobs and gold in Johannesburg. So they are streaming in. But there is nothing here."

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