Squatter problem persists

Somerset West resident, Neil Matthews, points out the informal structures erected in the bed of the Lourens River adjacent to the Riverside Centre, which he alleges house vagrants and squatters responsible for muggings and other criminal activity in the area.

Despite a year having passed since a complaint was laid with the City of Cape Town’s ombudsman about the ongoing squatter problem in Somerset West, nothing seems to have been done about it.

This is according to Helderberg Residents’ Association (HRH) executive committee member, Francis Clerke, who attended a public meeting in the parking lot of the Riverside Centre at the intersection of Main and Gordon roads in Somerset West on Thursday morning.

The meeting was called by Somerset West resident, Neil Matthews, who played a prominent role in the eventual demolition of a problem building at 6 Bellona Street.

The derelict structure, a declared heritage site, had become a haven for squatters, who, according to local residents were responsible for numerous burglaries in the area, alcohol and drug abuse, and prostitution.

“We’ve been very concerned about the squatter issue,” Mr Clerke told Bolander.

“Late April or early May last year, we laid a formal complaint with the City’s ombudsman about the squatter problem.

“We raised a whole list of issues at the time, including reasons why this matter must be properly addressed. It’s very concerning to me that the complaint has simply been ignored.”

According to Mr Clerke, receipt of the complaint was acknowledged.

“We did receive one response that was quite hopeful, a letter from the ombud’s office, stating the ‘City has a policy whereby we like to solve a problem within 90 days of receipt, which is in line with international best practice’.

“We then received another letter stating that an investigating officer had been appointed. Since then, we’ve heard nothing despite numerous follow-up communications, pointing out they are way overdue in dealing with the issue, but we get no response.”

Bolander emailed the City on Thursday morning immediately after the public meeting and enquired into the progress of the complaint laid by HRA with the City’s ombud a year ago.

A week later, on Wednesday April 25, Councillor Anda Ntsodo, mayoral committee member for area east replied: “Approximately two weeks ago, the City performed an operation in this area to clean up and remove the make-shift structures.

In addition, on Thursday April 19 at approximately 3pm, a complaint was received by a member of the public.

City teams were dispatched on Friday April 20 to investigate the complaint about the occupiers. The complaint is being investigated further.”

According to Mr Matthews, many people who live in the area, are too afraid to walk from their homes to the shops in the area, for fear of being accosted.

He recounted a recent event where a resident from Bridgewater who had been robbed, identified the perpetrators from CCTV camera footage, and accosted squatters living under the Main Road bridge, as he was convinced they had his stolen property.

“The police wanted to arrest him because they said he was attacking people,” Mr Matthews said.

Asked whether he acknowledged that people cannot take the law into there own hands, he said:

“I understand that, but he acted out of frustration, because nobody seems to do anything about the problem. There’s going to come a time when somebody will put petrol in this field and we will burn it, I promise you. It is time for counter action.”

Mr Matthews also said that he has previously approached Ward 84 councillor and Sub-council 24 chairperson, Stuart Pringle about the problem:

“With all due respect, Mr Pringle is too busy doing other things. I don’t think he actually cares. He knows the problem exists so he should have sorted it out.

“We told him about it when MEC Dan Plato was here to look into the problem, and he was invited to this meeting.” (“Bellona Street building set for demolition”, November 16 2016; “Bellona Street stalemate”, November 30 2016).

In response to an email enquiry from Bolander, Mr Pringle said he had been chairing the Sub-council 24 meeting on Thursday morning, but would confirm whether or not his office had received an invitation to the public meeting.

“With regards to the issues of land invasions, there have been over 60 such incidents in the City since the motion in Parliament calling for the expropriation of private property without compensation.

“The SAPS and City Law Enforcement and Metro police do work together to deal with criminal elements who live among the people living along the river.

“The City will also be utilising some of the ward allocation funding to install CCTV cameras to monitor the area around the Old Bridge for criminal activity in order to assist the SAPS, who are the primary agency in the fight against crime.

“As with the situation at Bellona Street, in which I was very involved and which also took years to resolve and which delays also frustrated residents, the situation of people living in and around municipal infrastructure is one which simply cannot be solved over night and involves a great many more people and agencies than simply the ward councillor or, indeed, the council.

“The City will, however, like with Bellona Street, persevere and continue to work with all stakeholders and the community in order to seek resolution to this challenge.”

Asked whether there had been a difference after the demolition of 6 Bellona Street, Mr Matthews said: “Absolutely, but now they have moved here.”

He pointed out a number of informal structures in the bed of the Lourens River, and the bridge over the river on Main Road.

The meeting was also attended by Bruce Cullum, senior field officer of the City’s informal settlements department, who confirmed that the City is dealing with multiple instances of land invasion across the metro.

Asked what action he would take in regard to what he had seen, Mr Cullum said: “I’ll be talking to the anti-land invasion unit and the displaced peoples unit, to see what can be done, and I’ll also talk to the SAPS to see how they can assist.”

“At least I have a number of other people listening to the problem now,” said Mr Matthews. “I’m hopeful, I really am hopeful.”