Social justice movements call for moratorium on evictions
27 social justice movements and organisations have written to government calling for a moratorium on all evictions in light of the coronavirus pandemic
In the face of an unprecedented threat caused by the Covid-19 we, as movements and organisations working with and in support of the working class, poor and vulnerable, call for a moratorium on the issuing and execution of eviction orders, and other attempts anywhere in the country to remove people from where they live during the declared state of disaster. This follows recent examples set by New York State, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Spain and other cities and states throughout the globe in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In our context, we call on the National Command Council and relevant Ministers to urgently implement this moratorium on evictions and other means of displacement, in terms of their powers under section 10(8)(c)
of Government Gazette No. 43107 (issued on 18 March 2020) to “take any other steps that may be
necessary to address, prevent an escalation of the national state of disaster, or to alleviate, contain and
minimise the effects of the national state of disaster”.
Those facing evictions have an added layer of vulnerability to the health risks posed by COVID-19 where
eviction would lead to homelessness. Urgent attention must be given to those who have nowhere else to
go; those facing life on the streets and those in emergency alternative accommodation living in conditions
that could foster the spread of COVID-19.
President Cyril Ramaphosa in his address on 15 March 2020, advised the nation to take certain precautions
to curb the spread of COVID-19. Yet, it is unfortunate that those actions presupposed a level of privilege
and access to basic amenities that many do not have. Groups experiencing heightened vulnerability include
people living in informal settlements with strained (if any) access to communal basic services, people living
in occupied buildings, people living on commercial farms, homeless people and those facing homelessness
and displacements as a result of evictions (both legal and illegal).
The current business as usual response, that is, issuing eviction orders, implementing their execution or removing people from their homes (even without an eviction order by means of an interdict, municipal by-laws or otherwise), does not consider the communicable nature of COVID-19 and how evictions and displacement will place a greater number of vulnerable people at risk. One cannot practice physical distancing should you find yourself and your belongings on the side of the road or in and open space and exposed to the public with no means of protection. One cannot practice a heightened level of hygiene by washing hands in the recommended manner where the only access to water is a communal standpipe and shared ablution facilities in an informal settlement or in a transitional relocation area.
The consequences of not imposing a moratorium on evictions during the declared state of disaster will be
dire. It cannot be disputed that the lack of stable housing is a major barrier to being healthy. In the context
of a crisis of unknown proportions, housing is more important now than ever before and the State must take
measures to prioritise protecting the most vulnerable by preventing evictions into homelessness. Research
worldwide has shown that homelessness is closely linked to exposure to infectious diseases, specifically
respiratory illnesses such as Tuberculosis and immunodeficiency. Covid-19 is no exception.
Response from the Judiciary
We acknowledge the statements issued by the Office of the Chief Justice and the various practice directives
issued by the Judges President of respective divisions. Yet, these measures deal largely with the question
of accessing courts during this pandemic. We are concerned that there has not been enough consideration
to the effect of eviction orders where those facing evictions have no alternatives.
At a press conference held in Midrand on Tuesday, 17 March 2020, Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng advised
that "we [the Judiciary] expect the normal course of litigation to be followed and for any presiding officer handling that matter to apply the normal principles" in response to a question concerning evictions by property owners.
However, given that the presence of COVID-19 within our borders is a sufficiently serious threat to those
facing homelessness and displacement, we request that the State reconsider this position, particularly with
regard COVID-19 as a critical intervening factor affecting what can be regarded as just and equitable under
current circumstances. It cannot be business as usual when the country is facing a potential public health
crisis which only stands to be exacerbated when scores of families are displaced or rendered homeless.
Evictions that result in displacement or homelessness can significantly increase the spread of infectious
diseases like COVID-19.
Many studies have shown a proven link between precarious living situations, such as homelessness, rough
sleeping, homeless shelters and other forms of temporary accommodation and the spread of infectious
diseases. In their important study on housing and homelessness, James Krieger (MD, MPH) and Donna L. Higgins (PhD) explain how the “[l]ack of housing and the overcrowding found in temporary housing for the homeless also contribute to morbidity from respiratory infections and activation of tuberculosis.” COVID-19 is a highly infectious respiratory virus which is especially dangerous to people living on the streets and those who already have a compromised immune system.
Informal settlement residents are at a disproportionate threat to illness as it stands. They are most vulnerable to spread of infections due to poor sanitation and suffer from a higher incidence of respiratory infections and conditions, such as tuberculosis and asthma. These cumulatively increase the burden of acute, chronic, infectious and non-communicable conditions. This is in the context of ongoing depression, stress and anxiety. Informal settlements residents are at present, among the most vulnerable to COVID-19 and evictions and displacement would only exacerbate this plight.
In addition, the stress of facing an eviction in court and the stress of threatened displacement will contribute
to contracting an illness such as COVID-19 and to its severity if transmitted. We expect the response to the
evictee’s compromised health to be limited given that an eviction disrupts a family’s ability to secure
healthcare and necessary medicines.
These realities are not unique to the urban context. We note with concern that there has been a reported
case of COVID-19 in the Cape Winelands. It is not unreasonable to expect transmission in those and other farming communities. We have routinely witnessed the inhumane treatment of farm workers and farm dwellers in the process of eviction, and how large numbers of people who have lost both employment and their homes are forced to choose between being destitute and on the streets; the emergency alternative accommodation offered by municipalities which mimic conditions of informality (if this option is available), or finding homes in informal settlements on the edges of small towns. The added threat of COVID-19 thus stands to make this untenable situation almost certainly fatal.
Importantly, the effect that evictions and displacements have on womxn in both urban and rural areas are
compounded by intersecting forms of discrimination and this makes womxn a particularly vulnerable group
should they be evicted and displaced during this time. Womxn headed households and children will not only
have an increased risk of contracting COVID-19 with a lack of access to health and sanitation, but will have
an increased risk of violence if displaced during this stage of the pandemic where most organisations
offering a safety net have had to close their doors in response to the national safety precautions.
In sum, when conducting the normal course of litigation, and trying to keep the process of the Court, we request that the Office of the Chief Justice and Judges President to issue directives and give effect to this moratorium and in so doing, prioritise the circumstances and protection of vulnerable persons who will be affected by evictions during this declared state of disaster. The Role of the South African Police Service (SAPS), the South African Board of Sheriffs and Municipal Law
We further call on the South African Board of Sheriffs and the South African Police Service (“SAPS”) to
issue instructions to their members to refrain from the execution of eviction orders. This is especially
important even when a writ of execution has been issued but the evictees face displacement or
homelessness. One cannot, in good conscience forcibly remove people from their homes, place their
possessions on the roadside and leave them to fend for themselves when there is a heightened risk of
exposure to COVID-19 in these circumstances. We also call on the SAPS, in particular, to prevent and stop
landlords and landowners from carrying out unscrupulous and unlawful evictions of people from their homes
where no court order has been granted.
We also call on a specific directive targeted at municipalities to cease the deployment of their anti-land
invasion units, law enforcement units (or similar structures) and the contracting of private eviction services,
such as the ‘Red Ants’, to evict, interdict, or otherwise remove occupiers in informal settlements or buildings.
These evictions are often carried out violently, illegally and involve the destruction of homes and the
confiscation of the meagre building materials communities have accumulated. For context, in the past
weekend, over 40 homes were demolished by Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit in the Zwelidinga
Informal Settlement, Khayelitsha with residents being forced into homelessness.9 This is one example of
one informal settlement in one city. There are many more across the country. Such conduct is obscene
even in the absence of such a crisis but would be most inhumane given the outbreak of COVID-19.
We cannot deny the link between secure housing and public health. In the face of a pandemic of unknown
proportions, we are seeing increasing calls for people to stay at home, work from home if possible and practice physical distancing. Other, more affected countries have gone as far as ordering residents to “shelter in place” confining them to their homes unless going out is unavoidable.
It must be apparent from the above that evictions and removal of vulnerable people who have nowhere else to go will increase their vulnerability to contracting COVID-19. The potential of a heightened risk of exposure
raises the probability of an exponential spread of COVID-19 throughout the country. This will put pressure
on the public health system and may overwhelm the disaster management measures put in place thus far.
It is therefore a public health obligation of the South African government to institute an immediate
moratorium on all evictions leading to displacement and homelessness and other attempts to remove
people from where they live. It would be blatantly irresponsible not to in a time when decisive proactive
measures are necessary to protect the health, and lives of all residents, especially the most vulnerable.
- Ndifuna Ukwazi
- Reclaim the City
- Abahlali baseMjondolo
- Socio-Economic Rights Institute (SERI)\
- Association for Rural Advancement (AFRA)
- Land Access Movement of South Africa
- Land & Accountability Research Centre
- Women’s Legal Centre
- Land Network National Engagement Strategy of South Africa
- Social Justice Coalition
- Alliance for Rural Democracy
- Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies
- Centre for Applied Legal Studies
- Nkuzi Development Association
- Equal Education
- Centre for Environmental Rights
- Studies in Poverty and Inequality Institute
- Lawyers for Human Rights
- Alternative Information & Development Centre
- Progressive Community Movement
- South Durban Community Environmental Alliance
- Poor Flat Dwellers Movement
- Legal Resources Centre
- Dullah Omar Institute
- Stellenbosch Backyarders Forum