A group of 27 social justice organisations has issued an urgent call for a moratorium on evictions during the Covid-19 state of disaster, raising concerns that evictions would lead to "displacement and homelessness" as the virus spreads across the country.
Last Sunday, President Cyril Ramaphosa declared a national state of disaster following an increase in the number of Covid-19 cases in the country. As of Saturday, the total number of cases in South Africa stood at 202.
The letter from the group of social justice movements was addressed to the Presidency's Covid-19 national command council, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize, the Office of the Chief Justice and the SA Board of Sheriffs. Other ministers listed in the letter were that of home affairs, human settlements, rural development and land reform, and police.
"Those facing evictions have an added layer of vulnerability to the health risks posed by Covid-19 where eviction would lead to homelessness," the groups said.
"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."
The groups said a moratorium on evictions would follow examples set by New York State, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Spain and other cities and states around the world in response to Covid-19.
They said that the national command council had the authority to place a moratorium on evictions because of the powers granted to it as a result of the declaration of a state of disaster.
In terms of the law, the relevant ministers are empowered 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".
Consequences of not imposing a moratorium 'will be dire'
"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," the organisations said.
"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).
"One cannot practice physical distancing should you find yourself and your belongings on the side of the road or in an 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 and homelessness.
"Research worldwide has shown that homelessness is closely linked to exposure to infectious diseases, specifically respiratory illnesses such as tuberculosis and immunodeficiency."
The groups said that informal settlements face a disproportionate Covid-19 threat due to poor sanitation and a higher incidence of infections and conditions.
The stress of facing an eviction and of threatened displacement would further contribute to the risk of contracting Covid-19, they warned.
They said that the authorities concerned, including the judiciary and its relevant arms, should issue directives giving effect to a moratorium on evictions.
The groups concerned are:
Reclaim the City
Socio-Economic Rights Institute of SA
Association for Rural Advancement
Land Access Movement of South Africa
Land and 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
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 Movements
Legal Resources Centre
Dullah Omar Institute
Stellenbosch Backyarders Forum