The Prevention of Illegal Eviction from an Unlawful Occupation of Land Act (the PIE Act) protects the rights of people who have no legal right to the land on which they reside.

Nerishka Singh, Nkosinathi Sithole and Yvonne Erasmus of the Socio-Economic Rights Institute write that while protecting the rights of unlawful occupiers appears counter-intuitive, the aim is a transformative interpretation of the law that balances the rights of property owners with those who may have other claims to the land.

‘The Act is fundamental to SA’s constitutional democracy and gives effect to section 26(3) of the Constitution. It deals directly with the realities of dispossession, landlessness and apartheid spatial planning, which continue to undermine the dignity of poor, marginalised and vulnerable households.’

In their opinion piece on the Mail & Guardian Online site, the authors note both section 26(3) and the Act are direct responses to the apartheid legal framework which – outside the use of their labour – reserved only 13% of land for black people and criminalised their presence in urban areas.

However, despite the importance of the Act, there have been several attempts to undermine it and its protection of the landless.

These include the use of anti-land invasion units by several municipalities and two amendment Bills – one in 2006 that has stalled and a more recent 2022 Private Member’s Bill that was circulated for public comment in October 2022.

The authors highlight three areas of regression in protections against arbitrary evictions:

* Proposed limitations on who the PIE Act applies to. The PIE Act is an act of last resort and already does not apply to individuals provided for under the Extension of Security of Tenure Act and the Interim Protection of Informal Land Rights Act. ‘Both the 2006 and 2022 Bills sought to limit the PIE Act’s application. In 2006, the amendment sought to exclude persons whose tenancy or agreement had been validly terminated but continued to occupy the land in question because they had nowhere else to go, while the 2022 amendment proposes the introduction of an income threshold, which will probably result in the exclusion of an undetermined number of people from justice, or even to court processes in eviction proceedings.’

* Attempts to circumvent court processes. Anti-land invasion units are used to effect evictions. The authors argue the point of contention here is what it means for someone to possess land – at what point is a court order needed to evict someone from land? ‘Is obtaining a court order unnecessary if a person hasn’t lived there long, or is it only needed if a shack has been erected? In 2022, the Western Cape High Court in HRC v The City of Cape Town declared that once someone is present on land with the intent to construct a shack and shows that intent by beginning to erect a structure, they are in possession and a court order is required to remove them.’

* The obligation that municipalities must provide temporary emergency accommodation to occupiers if eviction will result in homelessness. The 2022 Bill proposes that a court order stipulates for how long alternative accommodation is provided. ‘Ideally, alternative accommodation should be temporary but adding a definite end date ignores the vulnerability that people face. Termination of temporary accommodation that results in homelessness would, in turn, constitute an eviction. It would also be a violation of sections 26(1) and 26(3) of the Constitution, which places a negative obligation on the state and all other entities and persons to desist from preventing or impairing the right of access to adequate housing, and prohibits evictions that lead to homelessness, respectively.’

The authors add any discussion of evictions should be cognisant of the legacy of historic dispossession.

‘Instead of confounding the PIE Act, the focus should turn to address the lack of urban land reform, housing provision and unaffordability that are contributing factors to occupation. As the Constitutional court ruled in 2005 in Port Elizabeth Municipality v Various Occupiers, ‘It is not only the dignity of the poor that is assailed when homeless people are driv en from pillar to post in a desperate quest for a place where they and their families can rest their heads. Our society as a whole is demeaned.’

Full opinion piece on the Mail & Guardian Online site