Quo vadis political will?

Six Bellona Street. If you live in the Helderberg Basin, chances are you’ve heard of that address, at some point in the last six years, which is about how long concerned residents in Bridgewater, Somerset West have been begging the City of Cape Town to take action to remove the illegal squatters who have occupied the building, now a burned out shell of its former self.

Locals assert that the squatters are prostitutes, drug dealers and criminals, who they allege are responsible for all the crime in the area.

The City of Cape Town gazetted the Problem Building By-law on July 19, 2010, as a means of taking care of such problem buildings, but progress in respect of 6 Bellona Street, which ticks five of six boxes which classify a problem building in terms of the by-law, has been agonisingly slow.

On June 15 2015, a demolition permit was granted, after the property owner gave consent for the building to be demolished, according to a timeline of events supplied by mayoral committee member for safety and security, JP Smith.

Eleven days later, June 26, the Heritage Authority gave its consent for the building to be demolished, and on August 12, a demolition permit was granted. Almost 10 months to the day later, June 10 2016, an extension was granted to the demolition permit.

What remains unclear – and the City is loudly silent in this regard – is what happened in the ten months following the granting of the demolition permit, and granting of the extension on June 10.

Surely, since the demolition permit had been granted and consent given by the Heritage Authority, all that remained was to appoint a demolition contractor after following prescribed processes? Four to six months – the City’s own estimate for the duration of its legal procurement process – from August 12 2015, would mean that by end January this year at the latest, the demolition contractor could have been appointed, the demolition executed and the site completely cleared.

Instead, only some 11 months later, the tender was finally advertised, on November 18. The tender period closes on December 9, which takes us to somewhere between March and May next year, before the building can finally be demolished, and the site cleared.

What happens in the meantime, for residents who have fought bitterly for the City to take action? Nothing, unless they are prepared to foot the bill themselves for demolition of the building, estimated by Mr Smith to cost around R400 000, a suggestion which he made to me earlier this month, in response to one of my enquires.

But even if they were prepared to agree to this preposterous suggestion, they still face the knotty problem of getting the squatters out before demolition can take place, something which Mr Smith quite rightly says is the legal responsibility of the owner, insisting the City has no other course of action.

Except that the by-law makes specific provision for the City, by serving notice, to compel the owner to obtain an eviction order, at own expense, or face criminal prosecution, which upon conviction may result in a R300 000 fine or three years imprisonment, or both.

In fact, the by-law gives the City sweeping powers to act in respect of problem buildings, an assertion refuted by Mr Smith, but the provisions of the by-law speak for themselves.

Authorised officials may enter any suspected problem building for inspection purposes, classify problem buildings according to a set of objective criteria, and compel a problem building owner to take action required to address the circumstances which led to the problem building classification.

Such action includes, but is not limited to, clearing the building and surrounds, evicting squatters, repainting, renovation, fencing, and even demolition, by serving a compliance notice. Any costs incurred in invoking any of the provisions of the by-law, can be recovered from the owner.

What is the point in writing a law, which provides an administration with such sweeping powers, if you choose not to exercise the powers it confers, in the interests of the community?