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Raid on Cissie Gool House traumatises residents

- Lee-Anne Bruce

Monday's raid was not only a waste of police resources but conducted in a manner that humiliated the community and resulted in unlawful arrests

Less than one week after surviving a devastating fire, residents of Cissie Gool House in Cape Town had their homes forcefully raided by police. The raid has resulted in extensive damage to property and has traumatised residents who were threatened with firearms while they dressed or prepared for school. This waste of police resources is the latest in a series of attempts to harass and intimidate the community, which is represented by the Centre for Applied Legal Studies.

On Monday 31 January, at approximately 06h00 in the morning, occupiers of Cissie Gool House were confronted with a massive police presence which reportedly included a helicopter and mounted police unit. Police officers forced their way into the residents’ homes while many of them were still sleeping and undressed. The force of their entry and search damaged belongings as well as doors, locks and walls. Women who live in the building have reported feeling humiliated and traumatised after being threatened with guns while trying to get their children ready for school.

Close to 1,000 people live in Cissie Gool House, a building which previously housed the Woodstock Hospital and is now at the heart of the struggle for spatial decolonisation and equality in Cape Town. This is far from the first time residents have faced this type of harassment by authorities. In February 2021, the City of Cape Town sought the Western Cape High Court’s permission to undertake a survey of the residents with the intention of having them removed from the building. Fortunately, the Court ordered the matter to be postponed to allow the residents to properly oppose the application with the assistance of their representatives at the Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS).

Many of our clients strongly oppose having representatives from the City access their homes. In spite of this, on 3 March 2021 around 30 police officers entered, searched and barricaded the building without producing a court order or warrant – violating the residents’ rights to privacy, dignity and safety and security. On 22 April 2021, the residents represented by CALS came to an agreement with the City, later made an order of court, which protects our clients’ privacy and ensures the survey process is carried out with dignity and their housing needs are prioritised.

The raid on Monday, which came less than a week after a number of families living in Cissie Gool House were affected by a fire in the building, has resulted in yet more pointless damage and trauma. While the search and seizure warrant listed drugs, unlicensed firearms and ammunition as the targets of the raid, only two people in a building of 1,000 occupants were arrested for the possession of drugs and none for possession of firearms or ammunition. The warrant includes marijuana in the list of drugs to be seized, despite the fact that its use for personal purposes has been decriminalised.

Even more troubling is the fact that five people were arrested unlawfully following questions around their immigration status. Since this was not covered by the warrant, these amount to unlawful arrests following a warrantless search of a private dwelling. Those arrested include a breastfeeding mother, who was separated from her baby and reportedly only permitted to nurse for a few minutes at a time while she was kept in detention. Most of those arrested have since been released on bail.  

“This has become a case of intersecting and compounding rights violations,” says Basetsana Koitsioe, attorney at CALS. “Our clients are simply trying to build a home and a community in this space, and yet they face continual harassment and intimidation at the hands of the authorities who are meant to serve and protect them. Not only was the police raid conducted in a destructive and harmful manner, it was a wasted effort. Surely the state’s limited resources could be put to better use.”

“Law enforcement may have a search warrant, but they continue to threaten us with eviction,” says Karen Hendricks, resident at Cissie Gool House. “The intimidation and humiliation law enforcement confronts us with is tantamount to constructive eviction. We wish to remind the City that to conduct an eviction, there must be a court order.”

“This is far from the first case of such conduct by officials employed by the City of Cape Town,” continues Basetsana. “In July 2020, video footage of a man being forced from his home by City officials while naked led the South African Human Rights Commission to take the matter to the High Court. The Court found that the City’s conduct was unlawful and unconstitutional, violating the rights of vulnerable people.”

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