A political stunt to highlight South Africa's housing crisis got out of hand yesterday when tens of thousands of homeless people flocked to a piece of wasteland east of Johannesburg and demanded to buy a plot each for £2.50.
As police began turning away destitute people who had queued for hours in the winter cold, the small Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) said it would repeat the exercise all over South Africa. "We are frustrated that the African National Congress [ANC] government has no plan for dealing with the land crisis,'' said the PAC secretary general, Thami ka Plaatjie. "We have charged 25 rands [£2.50] per person but part of that money is to be used in case of litigation and the rest is intended for buying water tanks because there is no sanitation on the site."
The protest by the PAC, which for many years played a leading role in the struggle against apartheid but now has only one MP, was staged on land near Johannesburg airport which belongs to the provincial government and two farmers. After demand far outstripped theoretical availability yesterday afternoon, two ANC ministers arrived with police, and the local MP lodged fraud charges against Mr ka Plaatjie at a nearby police station.
Before being evicted from the site, Chemist Mazibuko, aged 37, said he had come from the nearby poverty-stricken Thembisa settlement after hearing that land was available for 25 rands. "I am tired of sharing a house with eight other people in my family. I have never had privacy and I think it is time to get my own place," he said.
Martha Mduli, 44, who has seven children, said she was uncertain whether the sale was legal but she felt she had little to lose because the home she shared in Thembisa had no electricity or running water.
The PAC action comes amid increasing signs that poor South Africans are becoming restive in the face of continuing poverty.
In recent days, half a million pensioners many of them supporting entire families have been unable to collect their monthly grants because of an administrative blunder. Two years ago, the ANC promised to provide a limited amount of free water and electricity to each South African household but the measure has been delayed.
At the same time, government-led land occupations in Zimbabwe greeted with horror internationally are being perceived in a broad sense by some South Africans as a victory for ordinary people against authority.
Even though the southern African winter is in its coldest months with freezing temperatures every night the Johannesburg authorities are shamelessly proceeding with a programme of evictions and shack-razing in Alexandra Township. Land restitution efforts in rural areas have become bogged down in the courts or have been slowed by disagreements between civil servants over how best to shift the ownership of land to black farmers.
At the same time, the respect in which President Thabo Mbeki is held abroad is increasingly counterbalanced by a perception, at home, that he is out of touch. High-ranking civil servants and ANC officials have been implicated in a £3.5bn arms procurement scandal. And it was recently revealed that South African Airways paid its former chairman, Coleman Andrews, £20m for his 30 months at the helm of the national carrier.
On Monday, South Africa's churches, Aids treatment campaigners, trade unions and voluntary sector launched a campaign for a £10-a-month payout to the 22 million people in the country who are estimated to be living in poverty. It would be drawn from a "solidarity tax" on the rich.
At the protest site yesterday, the Land Affairs Minister, Thoko Didiza, said the PAC's action would have a detrimental effect on South Africa's economy. "The PAC knows that no organisation has the authority or mandate to redistribute land or implement land reform, except government," she said.
"Grabbing land is illegal and immoral because government has set up processes by which land redistribution and administration is being addressed."