South Africa uses apartheid laws to evict thousands for World Cup

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The Independent Online

By Meera Selva, Africa Correspondent

Riots broke out after thousands of people in Johannesburg were forced out of their homes by South African authorities who invoked apartheid-era laws to tidy up the city centre in time for the 2010 World Cup.

Street hawkers, unofficial security guards and scrap collectors have been moved, sometimes by force, out of the dilapidated office blocks that have become homes for thousands of poor families in Johannesburg, to pave the way for new businesses and hotels.

In many cases, hired security guards have beaten the residents and stolen their property. Tenants wept as they tried to find their possessions, which had been strewn on the road. Fighting broke out on Thursday as tenants in the suburb of Doornfontein called police to prevent their belongings being seized. Two people were injured when police fired rubber bullets to end the clashes.

The eviction programme has brought protests from civil rights groups, who accuse South Africa of copying Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe, who demolished thousands of homes and businesses. Mr Mugabe insisted his programme, Operation "Drive Out Trash" was designed to stop towns turning into slums, but human rights group say it was designed to punish opposition voters.

In South Africa, people still remember the apartheid era when thousands of black people were cleared from areas designated for whites only and forced to live in cramped townships.

Jean du Plessis, deputy director of the Geneva-based Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions, (Cohre ) said: "Johannes-burg has been carrying out supposedly urgent 'health and safety' evictions from so-called 'bad buildings', using the National Building Regulations and Building Standards Act - which was passed under apartheid - to secure eviction orders.

"The city's policy of 'bad building' clearances is arbitrary, inhumane and in violation of international human rights law and South Africa's constitution." The Johannesburg city council insists it is acting within the law by cleaning up the central business district, which became a no-go area after the end of white rule in 1994.

A city spokesman, Roopa Singh, said many offices had been illegally converted into residential accommodation and the tenants were being moved for their own safety.

"Many of the residents used chipboard to separate the offices," he said. "There were illegal electrical connections, the fire exits were blocked and there were pests all over the place.

"We have a department that finds suitable accommodation for the old, and for those who really cannot find alternative [homes]." The authorities hope to woo back businesses that fled to the suburbs after the city centre became increasingly violent and crime-ridden. President Thabo Mbeki is keen to spruce it up in time for the World Cup, which he hopes will provide a major economic boost.

Mr du Plessis said: "Although some of the buildings are unhealthy and may serve as bases for criminals, our research shows most of those who live in such buildings are ordinary poor people trying to earn a living on the streets."

About 235 "bad" buildings perceived to be havens for criminals and squatters will be bulldozed and Cohre estimates 25,000 people will lose their homes. Housing associations estimate Johannesburg needs 18,000 low-cost homes for its poorest inner-city residents.