A week after police used stun grenades and rubber bullets to free municipal officials from a locked hall, community members say they now want Human Settlements officials to come and address them directly.
There was drama at the Kwanonqubela Community Hall in Alexandria on Tuesday, February 14 when the Public Order Police (POP) unit from Gqeberha was called in to end what they described as a hostage situation. While community sources confirmed to Talk of the Town that they had indeed locked the municipal officials in the hall, Ndlambe Municipality has denied they were being held hostage.
Residents of Mandela informal settlement were frustrated when a housing rectification project bypassed them.
“These houses were built in 1977 and their condition has badly deteriorated,” a source told Talk of the Town. “We can see neighbouring houses getting renovated, while the Mandela houses are not being attended to – yet they are in a far worse state.
“We called a meeting with the [Ndlambe] Mayor to discuss the Mandela housing issue,” the source said. “The mayor did not pitch at the meeting, but sent a deputy director to address us.”
That made community members frustrated, the source said, so they locked the doors, allowing only elderly people to leave the venue.
“The rest of us remained in the hall with the officials,” said the source. “The hall was locked so that municipal officials would not be able to get out.”
“Had we let those officials go, they would not have come back: they would have left us with empty promises. We were not fighting with them: we just wanted them to wait with us until their political principal arrived, since they had promised us that she was on the way.
“While we waited for the mayor’s arrival, the police came instead.”
Some of those in the hall had managed to escape before the police acted; but the rescue mission left several residents injured. Talk of The Town has seen images of wounds allegedly caused by POP’s rubber bullets.
“I was busy helping other people who were injured on the scene and I only realised when I got home that I was bleeding on my thigh,” said the source. “About nine of us went to Port Alfred hospital and we were attended to and got medication. Others who were not as badly injured got assisted at the local clinic.”
Residents who were in the hall rubbished claims that they had become violent.
“While we were waiting inside the hall, Alexandria police parked outside, just patrolling the area but they did not come inside.
“Next thing, maybe around 10pm, we see police officers whom we do not know entering the back door. When they came in, they didn’t ask anything. They just took out tear gas and hit us with rubber bullets.
“Luckily I was near the door so I’m one of the few who managed to escape and run out – but a lot of people were injured,” said a community member who had attended the meeting.
“As we were singing inside, we had locked the gate with a few municipal officials with us, waiting on the mayor and the municipal manager,” said another source. “The police then unlocked the gates, cutting the key chains we had locked them with. They did not say a word but immediately threw tear gas and shot us with a hail of rubber bullets,” the source said.
The mayor had met with residents the following day and had promised to return on Monday February 20 to give them an update and a full response, they said.
The police confirmed the incident, saying officials had been held hostage for more than five hours. The Public Order Policing unit were called in to assist Alexandria police who had tried to reason with residents to open the hall.
South African Police Service spokesperson Colonel Priscilla Naidu said: “It is alleged that on Tuesday 14/02 at about 18:00 SAPS Alexandria responded to a situation at the Kwanonqubela community hall where it was alleged that the community locked in three municipal officials after a meeting between the community and the municipal officials broke down. The meeting was about service delivery issues. They demanded to see the Mayor, the Municipal Manager and the councillor,” Naidu said.
“The Station Commander of SAPS Alexandria as well as the hostage negotiator tried to reason with the community to open the hall. At about 23:30, Public Order Policing were called to assist. The door of the hall was forced open and the three municipal officials were removed.”
Naidu said the community members had become violent and had started to throw chairs and other objects at the police. Stun grenades and rubber bullets had been used to disperse the crowd.
“Unconfirmed reports received that about nine people allegedly received treatment for injuries sustained. No cases have been opened,” Naidu said.
“On Wednesday, [February 15] the mayor did come to address us,” TOTT’s community source said. “We did not go inside the hall because we were afraid of what had happened the previous night. The mayor said she has sent people to send housing applications to Gqeberha and we are still waiting for that report back.”
For the third engagement, on Monday, February 20 the mayor was accompanied by ward 1 councillor, Asanda Nyumka and municipal housing officials for an update.
Residents were not satisfied with her update, however, and instead asked the mayor to bring officials from the provincial department of human settlement to answer for themselves.
Naidu confirmed the second meeting. “On 15/02, community members went to the police station and met with the Station Commander and thereafter proceeded to the community hall to meet with the mayor. At about 16:30, the meeting ended with no further disruptions,” said Naidu.
Naidu said cases of public violence, damage to essential infrastructure and kidnapping are under investigation.
Municipality Manager Advocate Rolly Dumezweni has already written to the Head of Department of Human Settlement for the inclusion of Mandela area, Ndlambe Municipality says.
Responding to questions from TOTT, municipal spokesperson Cecil Mbolekwa denied that municipal officials had been held hostage.
“There was no hostage situation. Instead residents wanted to be addressed by the municipal manager instead of municipal senior officials,” said Mbolekwa.
The municipality further confirmed that the residents were unhappy with their area being neglected in the ongoing rectification project.
“[This was] an expression of grievances from Mandela residents emanating from the exclusion of their area in a provincial rectification project. This simply means that Ndlambe Municipality is not is not the developer of the said project,” he explained.