Two groups of residents, divided along WhatsApp lines, have diverging views on how to deal with their land invaders
At 5am on Monday, scores of residents of the middle class Soweto suburb of Protea Glen emerged from their homes in their Converse sneakers and sheepskin slippers to burn tyres in the street.
They were protesting against the invasion of a piece of land next to Extension 29, where shack dwellers from Naledi, just across from the wetland, wanted to set up homes.
This was a very middle class protest: organised on a WhatsApp group, with residents of the comparatively affluent neighbourhood taking to the streets to prevent shebeens from springing up and their electricity, water and even their women from being “stolen”.
Toni Molefe, chairperson of the Protea Glen Crisis Committee and administrator of its chat group, said he and his neighbours acted after Extension 29 residents told them “they” were coming “from a number of areas in Soweto, Naledi in particular” to occupy the land across the road from their suburb.
“We joined them to try and stop those people, because what was happening is they were cutting pieces of land and the cops were just looking at them,” he said, during an interview conducted inside the white BMW he arrived in.
“Look, we don’t want black on black violence, and we were not saying they must be shot, but the cops must remove them. We don’t want them occupying land because what they are doing is illegal.”
Molefe, wearing Converse sneakers, jeans and a Barcelona Football Club branded golf shirt and peak cap, spoke passionately about his neighbourhood.
He said he “works for government” and lives in a suburb where, according to 2011 Census information collated on Wazimap, more than half of households own cars, 58% have jobs, 64% have internet access, 67% own their homes and are paying off bonds, and where the average household income is almost four times Gauteng’s average.
The land the shack dwellers wanted to move on to is privately owned, but residents don’t know who it belongs to.
Molefe said that after a week of informal home building on the site, reinforcements were called. “We sent messages on the WhatsApp group and people listen to us and we decided to be involved without violence.
“There’s no water or electricity by that land. When we spoke to these people, we asked where they will get water and electricity? They said ‘we will take it from you guys’ – meaning they will do illegal connections.
“That land must be used for RDP houses, but people must be allocated accordingly, not just people squatting.”
Although many of his neighbours labelled the shack dwellers criminals, Molefe said the crisis committee didn’t necessarily agree with this.
“We support this land expropriation without compensation. It must be done correctly, but let Protea not be used as the pilot project.
“If they want to grab land, they must first go to Julius Malema’s house and Floyd Shivambu’s,” he said, referring to the leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and his deputy. Let them go to [EFF national chairperson] Dali Mpofu and grab it. We mustn’t be the first victims, akere,” he said.
“The land grabbers are provoking us because we heard what they said in the media. They said there are no taverns here, we are going to make this place vibrant and we will steal their women.
“We are ready and waiting for them. I am on leave even now, because they said we know you are working, you will get tired and you will come back and we will have occupied.
“Here we don’t have rich people. We have middle class: nurses and police officers. We sleep with guns here. Some of them said don’t worry when they grab the land we will visit at night … what will happen?”
Not everyone agreed with Molefe or his crisis committee, not least members of the other neighbourhood WhatsApp group, called Glen Spear Residents, administered by Romeo Xolani Thabethe.
He once lived in a shack himself.
“These are black people and should be allowed to occupy land,” he said.
In January, Thabethe called a community meeting to decry high land prices and the poor workmanship of local houses.
Then a storm hit the area, laying waste to many homes which he said were worth no more than RDP houses.
“We all fought and called [Johannesburg Mayor Herman] Mashaba and the developers, saying these houses don’t have value. Now we are fighting other blacks claiming that these houses have value,” he said.
“Even if we take the developers to court they will have an argument because we are protesting to protect our value. But here you are protesting and burning tyres and damaging the streets, won’t that devalue your property?”
Thabethe claimed that, at a meeting with a local ward councillor last week, residents were told the city wanted to build parks and recreational facilities on the land, but that it would soon be invaded.
“There’s a mobilisation WhatsApp group that told everyone to wake up and go barricade on Monday. People took to the streets, and now another meeting has been called to calm the residents down.”
Thabethe, an author and motivational speaker, moved to Protea Glen from a shack in nearby Emdeni less than three years ago. When he went to observe Monday’s protest, he saw among the shack dwellers “people who knew me, who called me Xolani, a name residents at Protea don’t know, because I go by the name of Romeo here”.
“These are black people, just like me, and life happened to them, leaving them homeless and desperate.”
Thabethe insisted it was a class struggle waged by residents with bonds, “who really aren’t wealthy”.
“Many people behind their high walls here sleep on pap and tomatoes. Some get their homes repossessed.”
A woman, living two streets away from the protests and who is on both WhatsApp groups, once lived in a shack. Today she owns two houses because she managed to get a job and a bank loan.
“I don’t comment on these groups. I don’t even go to these people’s meetings because really they are full of nonsense,” she said.
“The shack dwellers have been called criminals and rapists and awful things. But my neighbours also harbour criminals, and they are always the people loudest in the groups.
“The one lady’s son stole my child’s toys and my tools, but she has the guts to call people in poverty criminals.”