Stripped naked and beaten: Tembisa land occupiers accuse police of brutality

Land occupiers in Tembisa say they have been at the receiving end of violent, persistent and unlawful attacks by police, with the most brutal attack taking place on Monday, July 30, reports GroundUp.

Shack dwellers on the land, which they have named Phumula Mqashi, were allegedly stripped naked and beaten by both Ekurhuleni Metro Police Department (EMPD) and South African Police Service (SAPS) officers from Tembisa. Their makeshift shacks were burnt.

After the last operation by both EMPD and SAPS, no shacks were left standing. The occupation site was littered with the remains of burnt shacks.

Teargas was used and rubber bullets discharged according to Kgomotso Mogeshoa. She says she and another community leader were targeted, chased and threatened with arrest for their involvement in the land occupation.

Mogeshoa said police were at the land occupation site from 10:00 to 13:00 on July 30, travelling in minibuses and trucks. She says mattresses, blankets and clothes were set alight. Residents who took videos and pictures had their phones confiscated.

Bongani Siwela rebuilds his shack with paper after it was demolished by the Ekurhuleni Metro Police Department during an eviction. (Ihsaan Haffejee, GroundUp)

"They shot at us [with rubber bullets] and stripped the men naked, beat them and threw teargas. There are also babies here. There is nothing they didn't leave [out]. They burnt everything. Even now, I don't know what is going to happen," she said.

Mogeshoa said they would continue to occupy the land despite the action of the authorities, adding that they had nowhere to go. They have been on the land since mid-February.

Residents say that a month ago, three people had to be sent to hospital after law enforcement officers assaulted community members. One elderly woman was recently discharged. Residents said a woman was seriously injured when her shack collapsed after it was set alight.

'All my dreams are in this place'

James Nthau said he was given no warning.

"They came while I was taking a bath. I was naked, and they just dismantled my shack. They took pictures and made fun of me," said Nthau.

He said his building material was then set alight by police.

Nthau said he had rented a garage for R1 000 a month until he lost his job as a security guard.

"My wife sells goods on the side of the road, and she is the one who is struggling to pay for the kids' school. The [child] grant money is not enough," he said. "All my dreams are in this place."

Sipho Nene, another occupier, says that on June 30 he was assaulted by police at the site of the land occupation and then detained in Kempton Park. He claims he was beaten with a crowbar, pointing at various marks on his right hand. He did not lay a criminal charge.

Eric Qeqe drags a used carpet that he will use as a roof as he rebuilds his shack after it was destroyed. (Ihsaan Haffejee, GroundUp)

Anna Mnisi said her teenage grandson was assaulted on July 2 while taking pictures of the police.

"They manhandled him and told him to hand over his phone. They asked if his father had bought him the phone to record police. His pregnant aunt was pushed to the ground when she tried to intervene. We are always scared, they have no heart," she said.

Court order

Mnisi said she lost her South African Social Security Agency card when her shack was set alight by police while she was away fetching firewood.

The evictions on July 2 prompted the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa to condemn the attacks on residents.

City of Ekurhuleni spokesperson Themba Gadebe said that the area was intended for various development projects, and residents had settled illegally on the strip of land.

"The area has already been declared a township and in the current financial year, we are beginning with the designs and upgrades."

He said the municipality had a court order against the occupation dated September 2015.

Daniel Malatji and his 18-month-old daughter Modjadji sit in the remnants of their shack. (Ihsaan Haffejee, GroundUp)

"The police were acting in accordance with the court order. We must continue to call on our people to desist from illegal occupation of land because it is at times a sabotage of a development that will benefit them such as it is the case with the Essellen informal settlement," he said.

He said the land was set aside for houses that the City had committed itself to build.

But Mnisi does not believe the houses will materialise.

Allegations against EMPD 'devoid of truth'

"We will die before we even see those RDP [houses]. My daughter applied in 1996 and died and her house is still not out. We don't steal, we sell veggies and rely on grants. Why do they harass us like this?" she asked.

Nthau said police had been to the land occupation site more than 14 times. They had used rubber bullets, and demolished and burned shacks.

On Tuesday, July 24, EMPD told the occupiers that they had two weeks to leave the area. Mogeshoa said they had sought legal help from a private lawyer. On July 25 occupiers reported that the EMPD had returned and burned down more shacks.

At the time of the demolitions in July, EMPD's Wilfred Kgasago said people had been warned to leave the land and that law enforcement would ensure that no new structures were erected.

The remains of a shack that was allegedly set alight during an eviction. (Ihsaan Haffejee, GroundUp)

"Allegations that the EMPD has burnt their stuff are devoid of the truth. Once the structures are removed, the EMPD either allow them to remove the [building material or it is] taken in trucks to storage facilities.

"At one point it was proven that those injured was because of conflicts among the groups illegally invading that piece of land (sic)," he said at the time.

Following the evictions on Monday, EMPD's Kgasago directed queries to director Joseph Machete who did not immediately respond.

Norkem Park SAPS spokesperson Captain Lesibana Molokomme said he had not received any information about the incident.

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