Johannesburg (CNSNews.com) - Heavily armed South African authorities began Apartheid-style evictions of illegal squatters near Johannesburg on Thursday.
The move is part of the government's attempt to crack down on the illegal land invasions, which have become a common feature in a country where almost half of the population is homeless.
Municipal workers clad in red overalls have become a common sight in many informal settlements throughout the country. Their jobs are to tear down any shacks that have been erected illegally, and this has earned them the name of "Red Ants".
"They come here and destroy everything, they don't even care what happens to their own people, they are traitors," said Mavis Nkosi, a squatter, who wept as the Red Ants tore down her home. "I can't afford to go anywhere else and this was the only home which I had," she said.
Nkosi, who has four children and a husband in jail, has been unemployed for a year. She joined thousands of homeless people last month in buying plots of lands for about $3 from members of the Pan Africanist Congress, a left wing party, which has tried to cash in on the drastic need for land.
Thousands of landless South Africans streamed onto a 14,400-acre property known as Bredell, setting up hundreds of small shacks on the local government-owned land.
Land grab fears
When word of the invasion made headlines, there were fears of a Zimbabwe style land grab. The African National Congress government was quick to assure foreign investors that it would not allow the country to become another Zimbabwe, where land hungry peasants have seized commercial farms with the support of the Zimbabwe government.
But despite South Africa's assurances, the local currency dropped to an all-time low, of 8.24 Rand to the dollar.
Government was quick to act and made an urgent court application to have the squatters evicted. This was granted on Tuesday, and squatters were given 48 hours to leave the property.
While many followed orders and departed, a core group remained defiant and insisted they would not leave unless they were provided with alternative accommodation.
But when the trucks of municipal workers rolled in supported by hundreds of riot police and soldiers, many of the residents fled.
The PAC tried to prevent the evictions and called for a land summit to deal with the issue. It claims the government has forgotten its promises made before the 1994 elections to supply free housing to all South Africans. The PAC actions sparked outrage from the ANC government.
"We have seen some political opportunists abuse the genuine concerns of some of the landless people," said Land Affairs Minister Thoko Didiza. "They are misleading people."
"People should not be taken for a ride by any individual or organization promising that they have got authority to undertake land reform when they actually don't," she said.
Time bomb ticking
The government says by acting swiftly to remove the squatters it has sent out a clear message that the rule of law must be obeyed.
But while the ANC may claim victory for now, the land issue in the country is still a potential time bomb.
A report released Friday shows that the Gauteng province, home to the country's largest city Johannesburg and the most densely populated of the nine provinces, has a housing backlog of more than half a million. In the East Rand, were Bredell is situated, a total of 126,446 households are on a housing waiting list.
"Government is aware that in many instances the allocation process is slow and complex," said Dumisani Dlamini, a housing department official.
"Government does not encourage people to invade land as this not only disrupts the existing strategy for the release of land and the development of housing but also creates tensions between many homeless and landless communities,"
But for the thousands of people like Ms Nkosi, these are merely words.
"What do they (the ANC government) know, they sit in their offices and have forgotten where they came from and who put them there," she said as she sat in the remains of her destroyed shack.
"We were promised land and house, and they have not delivered. How much longer must we wait, while our children suffer?" she said.
See Earlier Story:
South Africa Gov't Outraged over Land Seizure (5 July 2001)