Re-blocking could cause conflict in Alex community

Sjwetla informal settlement on the banks of the Jukskei river is one of the areas to be re-blocked. All photos by Thembisani Dube

Informal settlement residents and property owners in Alexandra township could be set on a collision course with each other as the national government intends to re-locate residents to curb the spread of covid-19. The property owners, who have been involved in a long, drawn-out battle over a piece of land that they were forcibly removed from by the apartheid government, believe that they should be prioritised. The government on the other hand wants to move people from the informal settlements to the piece of land.

The mayor of the City of Johannesburg, Councillor Geoff Makhubo, recently held a sod-turning ceremony giving the resettlement project the green light despite anger and disapproval of the property owners in Alexandra. Their organisations have been in a protracted land dispute with the government in which they have sought to reclaim land which was forcibly taken by the apartheid government. Talks to settle the matter have been dragging for decades and it was only late last year when the government finally showed some commitment to settle the matter by issuing a handful of title deeds. As part of the deal, the government promised to find alternative land to de-congest the already overcrowded township.

“We were never consulted or invited to any meeting regarding this; we only saw it in the media. What is more amazing to us is that all of a sudden there is land available for covid-19. All along we’ve been told there is no land available to restore properties hence negotiations took so long. The very same pockets of land identified for this project are ones government promised to utilise to de-congest people staying in our yards but it now seems this is not going to be,” says Richard Mbalukwana, Chairperson of Alexandra Land and Property Owners’ Rights (APOR).

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He adds that according to reports, Stjwetla informal settlement is earmarked as one of the beneficiaries of this initiative: “We’ve been complaining about this for years that people are putting themselves intentionally on the dangerous river banks of the Jukskei River so that when there is a disaster, they’ll be the first ones to benefit. This is really a pain to us. Thousands of people have been moved from there but the place is not going away.”

Adolf Marema, a ward councillor and also a member of the Land Task Team looking into matters of land in Alexandra, calls this ‘solving a problem by creating another problem’. “This is really going to cause a chaos in the township, which is unnecessary in my view. I’ve been advocating the plight of the property owners for years in the meetings with government but it seems my pleas have fallen on to deaf ears. Hiding behind the covid for me is a lame excuse; instead the government should be taking an opportunity to settle with the property owners. This is the long-standing issue.”

Two of his colleagues where the project is going to be concentrated say that while they sympathise with the land owners, they rally behind the government in response to a national and a global pandemic which so far has had devastating effects.

Councillor Lee Ibrahim of Ward 109 further hints that the total project value ranges over R100-million and intends to relocate about 1,600 residents living in high density areas in and around the township.

“This is responding to an emergency where the government is trying to save lives and I see it also as part of service delivery. People are staying in bad conditions here,” says Councillor Deborah Francisco of Ward 108. 

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The Madala Hostel is one of the overcrowded buildings in Alexandra township

Defending their stance on the matter, the City of Johannesburg says the resettlement project is part of their bid to curb the spread of covid-19 infections, as President Cyril Ramaphosa has mandated them to do, calling for all government spheres to work together in slowing the pandemic. The City also referred to statistics from the Department of Health that demonstrate the transmission of the virus accelerates in densely populated areas.

“Gauteng has proven to be one of the epicentres of the virus in South Africa with the City of Johannesburg yielding several high-density areas with a significant population located in informal settlements,” reads the statement.

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