The Law Society of South Africa has denounced allegations made by Johannesburg Mayor Herman Mashaba against human rights lawyers as "irresponsible, ludicrous allegations without any proof", Co-Chairperson of LSSA Walid Brown told HuffPost SA on Monday.
In response to a question posed to the Mayor on Twitter asking "what's stopping us from taking back inner-city buildings?", Mashaba on Saturday responded, "So-called Human Rights Lawyers being paid from proceeds of human and drug trafficking".
Discussions around unlawful occupations of Johannesburg's inner-city buildings re-emerged on Twitter following a police raid of a 'hijacked' building in the CBD on Thursday. This was in search of 13-year old Kitso Mothibe from Soweto who was found alive over the weekend in the city after going missing three weeks prior, according to an EWN report. The family of the missing teenager told 702 last week they believed Mothibe was being held by "pimps and druglords in the CBD," the report said.
Brown said the Law Society of South Africa invited the mayor on Twitter to contact them for information on how to report the matter formally. In the absence of any proof, however, Brown said the allegations remain baseless.
"Similar statements have in past been made about attorneys in KwaZulu-Natal allegedly involved in fraud. Certainly, if [legal practitioners] are involved, they must be brought to task but responsible avenues must be used to do this. Generalised statements without proof are not helpful," he said.
Brown confirmed they have not received a response from the mayor. Mashaba's office was unreachable for further comment regarding the allegations at the time of publishing.
'Lawyers are not obstacles to equitable inner-city rejuvenation'
"This accusation [against human rights lawyers] is grossly inappropriate and another example of his destructive rhetoric", said Stuart Wilson, Director of the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of SA. "He doesn't really know what's going on in the inner-city so he fires tweets scapegoating human rights lawyers".
Wilson said they are not obstacles to inner-city rejuvenation, but favour change that is equitable and doesn't exclude poor people.
"The current approach in Johannesburg, and one that long precedes Mashaba's administration, has been inner-city rejuvenation for fewer and generally wealthier people. Inner-city change must be for everybody. This means poor people need to be included," he said.
SERI, an organisation that provides legal assistance for the realisation of socio-economic rights, has provided legal aid to people facing housing evictions, including in Johannesburg's inner-city. On Saturday, the Johannesburg High Court set aside an eviction order granted against 84 people residing in a Hillbrow building following SERI's application in October 2015 for leave to appeal against the eviction order.
SERI's attorney acting for the residents said in a press release, "It is unfortunate that many eviction orders are still made against people who stand to become homeless‚ without the relevant local authority being joined to the proceedings and held to account for its duty to provide temporary shelter."
South Africa's Constitution explicitly forbids evictions from homes, or demolition of homes, "without an order of court made after considering all the relevant circumstances". The landmark Grootboom judgement in the Constitutional Court in 2000 set in motion a transformation of evictions law in the country, with The Prevention of Illegal Eviction from and Unlawful Occupation of Land Act 19 of 1998 (PIE) as guiding legislation. It followed that evictions leading to homelessness are unlawful, and the state or relevant public authorities are obliged to provide temporary alternative accommodation.
'They can't call themselves human rights lawyers'
"The whole idea around reclaiming the inner city is around poor members of the community who are forgotten. If you look at the housing backlog, at unemployment, the biggest casualities are poor people, the forgotten people," Mashaba told HuffPost SA in March.
He said living conditions in many 'hijacked' buildings are abominable and wonders "how people who call themselves human rights lawyers can say we have to let people live in these conditions".
"I say no, these can't be human rights lawyers. I don't believe anyone who claims to be a human rights lawyer would want to subject people to these conditions, and subject them to this situation forever," he said.
Mashaba said his administration wants to 'reclaim' these buildings and "let the private sector put in their own money and their own expertise". During construction, he said, there will be opportunities for people to get employment. After completion, safe and high quality low-cost accommodation would then be available for these people.
"I need civil society to understand my motivation and strong belief in claiming this city back". "We want everyone to have an opportunity to live in a city that is safe, clean, that provides basic and proper facilities, where you can bring up your children in a proper, conducive environment," he said. "We cannot allow our city to be hijacked by criminal elements," he said.
'Poor people live in these buildings only because they have no choice'
"It's not me or any other human rights lawyer telling people to live in these conditions. These are conditions people have chosen for themselves. One has to ask why someone would choose to live in a derelict building, why would they want to live in a shack? The point is they have no alternative," Wilson told HuffPost SA.
He said many of the occupied buildings in the inner-city are certainly in poor condition and SERI "accepts it is not ideal for people to live in these", but the alternative is for people to live on the streets which is "a good deal less safe and secure".
"It's really quite cynical of the mayor to attack human rights lawyers by suggesting we are the ones telling people to live in informal settlements or bad buildings.This is a deeply patronising thing to do. It imagines that poor people don't make choices for themselves, when of course they do. It's also a way of denying the problem, denying the agency of poor people, and denying the real constraints on the choices they face," he said.
Reliance solely on the market to provide housing, Wilson said, is "precisely why these people are forgotten in the first place". Inner-city regeneration is said to be for poor people, but it's clearly for "rich property speculators who displace poor people", Wilson said.
A critical issue, Wilson said, is that the City of Johannesburg - including long before Mashaba's tenure - has never been able to explain how city regeneration leads to better housing and employment opportunities.
"There is simply no direct causal link. Poor people will continue what they are doing now: cleaning, guarding buildings and conducting informal trade. The wages they earn from these activities will continue to be inadequate to enable them to afford even some 'low-cost' housing", he said.
"Until Mr Mashaba addresses that difficulty, he has no right to refer to poor people as people that have somehow been forgotten by everybody else and remembered by him. He's just as much a part of the exclusion as everyone else," Wilson said.
An alternative approach to inner-city rejuvenation that isn't purely reliant on the market, Wilson said, is to "build public housing, subsidise rent and provide emergency shelters where needed".