Bailiffs rip apart South African housing protest

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A South African land protest which raised fears of Zimbabwe-style chaos has been halted peacefully by bailiffs who tore down newly built shacks with crowbars. But with hundreds of families claiming to have been homeless in sub-zero temperatures, the African National Congress government faced new accusations that it was neglecting the poor.

Forty eight hours after a high court order to evict up to 7,000 illegal settlers from a piece of wasteland at Bredell near Johannesburg airport, 60 bailiffs faced no resistance as they dismantled hundreds of wood and corrugated iron shacks built in the last two weeks as a result of a political stunt by the opposition Pan-Africanist Congress. The PAC had sold off plots of land it did not own for 25 rand each (£2.40).

While the ANC continued to claim that the settlers had been the victims of political opportunism, PAC leaders renewed their attacks on the government for its slow delivery of housing to the poor. The South African Council of Churches called for calm and attempted to find short-term accommodation for the displaced settlers.

Many people at Bredell said they had been on housing waiting lists for seven years and others claimed that government-built homes were of poor quality. Lukas Rampedi, 48, said: "This place was a great opportunity for me. Now I do not have anywhere to go.''

Albert Hamese, 43, said he felt let down by the government. He said: "I voted for the ANC but I cannot support them any more. Wherever you stay, they tell you it's not yours. I can build a house if the government gives me land. But it won't. We are the children of the ANC. If you promise a child a sweet but do not give it to them, they will end up stealing it.''

The government claims it has built 1.1 million low-cost homes – providing more than 6 million people with shelter – since it came to power in South Africa's first all-race elections in 1994. But an estimated 8 million people, out of a population of 42 million, still lack proper homes.

The South African government – which has seen the rand slip against the dollar as the Bredell events unfolded – won the eviction order on Tuesday by arguing that the settlers' safety was at risk from electric pylons overhead and an underground oil pipeline.

It was in the delicate position of inviting parallels with the apartheid regime if police used force to remove the poor settlers, or risking months of anarchic land-grabs, Zimbabwe-style, by being lenient with the illegal occupiers.

Between 1960 and 1983, three million black people were forcibly displaced to make way for whites. Since 1994, the ANC has launched an ambitious programme of land restitution, aimed at redressing the wrongs of the apartheid era when the 1913 Land Act was used to give the minority white population 87 per cent of South Africa's land. But the process has been woefully slow and fraught with legal obstacles. So far, less than 2 per cent of formerly white-owned land has been returned to black people.