PLETTENBERG BAY NEWS - What has been described as a five-day “hostage situation” in Plettenberg Bay, wherein a stretch of the N2 through the town was forced to close by rioters over discontent about a Qolweni housing project, came to an end on Monday 12 October.
This, however, appears to be a temporary truce after the community and Bitou Municipality "agreed" to a 21-period to start the implementation of the project.
It was not the first time Qolweni residents turned to protesting over the housing project. Apart from sporadic outbreaks of unrest last month, the town was plagued by similar action in February this year, as well as in July last year. In 2018, the town was also brought to a standstill when several communities joined in the riots over housing issues.
N2 highway blocked
The most recent riots broke out last Thursday 8 October and continued until Monday this week. The unrest included blocking the N2 with burning tyres, rocks and other debris, as well as the stoning of vehicles and damaging private property. Some residents were not able to get to work, while businesses in the area had to shut their doors.
Public Order Police (POPS) monitored the situation, but the undeterred crowds of rioters continued with the action for five days. Four suspects, between the ages of 32 and 40, have so far been arrested in connection with incidents of public violence.
Police spokesperson Sergeant Christopher Spies said the men appeared in the local magistrate's court on 12 October when the matter was postponed to 15 October. The suspects remained in custody.
During the period a fire also broke out in the community – destroying several informal homes, claiming the life of an 18-year-old Murray High School learner and severely injuring another young girl. The cause of the blaze is as yet unknown.
This was confirmed by police spokesperson Captain Marlene Pieterse, who said the fire broke out at about 22:00 on Sunday 11 October. "No foul play is suspected," Pieterse said, adding that community members managed to extinguish the flames.
'Subject to stipulations'
Bitou municipal spokesperson Andile Namntu explained that a meeting was held between the community and Mayor Peter Lobese on Monday, when it was agreed to end the unrest. This was subject to certain stipulations, however, including that the Qolweni housing project would get under way within 21 one days and that the process of moving the qualifying beneficiaries to the transitional residential area – on what is known as “Minnaars Land” – commences immediately.
“It was also agreed that the municipality would provide support to the families whose houses burnt,” Namntu said.
But community leader Thandanani Mdatyulwa denied that the reason for the unrest ending was as a result of an agreement with the municipality. “It is out of respect to the family that we have decided to ease up on the action for now,” he said.
According to Mdatyulwa, the main reason for the latest protests was because of mistrust between residents and the municipality. He explained that the community has been fighting for housing for several years and recently wanted proof that a contractor had been appointed and the budget approved for the project.
“We have been asking for this proof, but the municipality has not provided us with a document to that effect,” Mdatyulwa said – despite several meetings between the parties before the riots, he added.
Bitou mayor Lobese explained that through the interventions of the Human Rights Commission, a platform for engagement between the Qolweni community and the Bitou Municipality was created in August last year.
“This was aimed at facilitating open, honest and effective engagements between these parties regarding the Qolweni housing development, among others,” he said.
He added that since the platform was established there had been several meetings with key stakeholders such as the Western Cape Department of Human Settlements, as well as report-back sessions.
“The Bitou Municipality has always opened up to the leadership and community of Qolweni and it is a pity that it often so happens that some members of the community second-guess information… It seems the leaders of the community have a real need for total transparency and they believe they are receiving conflicting information from different role players.”
Over the past two weeks, stated Lobese, deputy mayor Sandiso Gcabayi went to the community on two occasions to clear potential confusion. “However, the community rejected the feedback. This is very concerning because the feedback given by the deputy mayor was a factual report.”
The mayor confirmed that a contractor was appointed on 9 October 2020 for the first phase of the project – to erect 169 homes in Qolweni – but that this appointment was subject to a 21-day appeals window which would end on 1 November this year.
The municipality and the Department of Human Settlements have also been at odds over the process since mid-September.
According to Human Settlements MEC Tertuis Simmers, the municipality on 10 October announced that the tender process for the contractor had been completed, but that the company could not be confirmed until his (Simmers') department approved an additional amount on the allocated budget. He said the department had a budget cut of more than R300-million since the beginning of the year.
“This means we’re in no position to waste any time or funds on projects, especially ones such as this that should already be up and running. This municipality is fully aware that no additional funds are available, and they had to ensure their tender processes do not lose sight of this.”
Simmers in a statement on Wednesday said he would engage the leadership of the Qolweni community in a meeting on Thursday 15 October.
As to the nature of the protests, Lobese said: “It is a concern that these unrests have violent and criminal elements to them, and these threaten the lives and properties of innocent, hard-working residents of this town. It is tragic that the national road is targeted, which risks the lives of visitors and those passing our lovely town.
"We have witnessed similar protests in our neighbouring towns. This requires urgent and immediate intervention. The police and law enforcement authorities are doing as much as they can, but due to limited resources they are often unable to cope with the unrest.”
The mayor said a meeting was held on 9 October between the municipality, local police management and Garden Route disaster management to address these issues. Among the decisions taken included writing a letter to Police Minister Bheki Cele calling for high-level intervention as well as looking at establishing a local POPS between Bitou and Knysna, Lobese said.
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