Court upholds eviction of circus occupiers

Residents offered accommodation at the Culemborg Safe Space and must be out by 31 July

By Ashraf Hendricks

26 May 2023

Glynis Bentham, 64, is the oldest person living on the old circus school premises in Observatory. She says that she can’t imagine living in Culemborg and would happily pay for affordable accommodation if it was available in Observatory. Photos: Ashraf Hendricks.

A group of about 25 people living at the old circus school in Observatory have to leave the property by 31 July, the Magistrate’s Court has ruled.

With the City of Cape Town having offered the Culemborg Safe Space 2 on the Foreshore as alternative accommodation, Magistrate Reaz Khan, presiding over an eviction application brought by the City, on 19 May ruled that those living on the property, also known as “the Willow Arts Collective (WAC)” be evicted. They have until 15 July to make a decision on the City’s offer of accommodation.

Jonty Cogger, the attorney who represented the WAC in the eviction hearing, said the Culemborg Safe Space site was intended for homelessness “as opposed to conditions that evictees face”.

Cogger said the safe space site had a number of limitations. These included not accommodating families, people being locked out during the day, and a lack of personal space.

While homeless people making use of the safe space can stay for a maximum of six months, those evicted from the circus school have been offered and 18-month stay.

Cogger said the circus school residents were still deciding if they would appeal the ruling. He said they would like to visit the Culemborg site to better understand the location and see if it was acceptable.

The eviction application first took place in 2019, with the WAC having been offered alternative housing in Kampies in Philippi, or Bosasa in Mfuleni. They were also offered emergency housing kits they could use to build their own shacks if they could find private land owners who were willing to accommodate them.

Two members of the WAC collective GroundUp spoke to rejected the idea of going to Culemborg. “It’s not a safe space. It’s not a house. It’s literally meant for homeless people,” said Shayne Taliona, who is one of the residents who has led the urban gardening project they had established over the last four years.

Taliona said the Culemborg Safe Space was meant for people who were homeless.

“I have a shelter,” he said. “The only bad thing is that it doesn’t belong to me.” He said Culemborg was worse than Kampies and Bosasa as it lacked privacy and freedom.

Shayne Taliona says that the Culemborg as an emergency housing option is worse than Kampies and Bosasa.

“They think that we are homeless people,” said Glynnis Bentham, a 64-year-old resident who works for Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce. Bentham said home was somewhere you could relax, but with the safe space forcing you to leave during the day, this wasn’t possible. She said she would happily pay for affordable accommodation in Observatory, but there was none. She said as an older person, the safe space didn’t seem safe, and she was too old to live differently now.

The land is owned by the City Cape Town who wish to reincorporate it into the Hartleyvale sporting precinct. Luthando Tyhalibongo, Spokesperson for the City of Cape Town said the safe space was being offered to “prevent the respondents from being destitute in the event of execution of an eviction order”. He said social workers, training programs, and job opportunities through the expanded public works programme (EPWP) were available from there.

Cogger said it was ironic that the Culemborg Safe Space might not feel safe, and it would never feel safe as in 18 months they would have to find somewhere else to live.

The circus school became occupied when the South African National Circus School, which leased the property from the City, illegally sublet the building to tenants. When this was discovered by the City, the lease was terminated, leading to what became the WAC occupying the premises.

In 2019, the WAC drew up a proposal to lease the land from the City in order to run an urban farm and arts project on the land. The proposal was endorsed by a number of Observatory civic organisations, but was rejected by the City.

“The precinct has been identified as a sports precinct,” said Tyhalibongo.

“The Magistrate ordered that the meaningful engagement failed, and that the eviction proceedings should run its course.”

About 25 people make up the Willow Arts Collective.