WALKERVILLE, South Africa: On an abandoned private farm south of Johannesburg, the sound of hammers bashing nails into corrugated iron, brooms sweeping away the dust and a faint chatter of voices can be heard on a nearby road.
It is the sound of dozens of shacks being hastily built in the Walkerville town of the Midvaal, a semi-rural farming area in South Africa, where growing demand for land and housing is fueling a wave of similar occupations.
“We’re here to build ourselves a new home and a new life,” said Tantaswa, 37, who did not want her real name used for fear of being evicted.
Tantaswa said she bought the plot and building materials for 2,800 rand ($162) on Facebook but did not receive any title deeds or know anything about the seller or the owner of the unoccupied property.
“It’s a risk to build here, but we have to take it because we’re suffering in the nearby township,” she said, as she swept away dust with her daughter outside their recently erected shack.
The land was previously occupied by now deceased farmer Richard Makhetha, who invested in its upkeep, and his widow said she was seeking advice from the Department of Agriculture on what to do about the occupations.
In June, Walkerville become a hotspot for land occupations on unused private property, led by a group of local men calling themselves The Big Six.
Elsewhere in South Africa, land occupations have gathered pace during the coronavirus lockdown, often ending in shack demolitions or evictions by authorities despite a directive that municipalities must suspend evictions during the pandemic curbs.
Housing rights campaigners said many poor renters have been unable to work and pay rent in a country where affordable housing is in short supply.
But Midvaal Mayor Bongani Baloyi said the occupations were “not about housing issues, this is about criminality,” referring to groups such as The Big Six or the Facebook land sellers.
“For me this is a simple legal issue. The law says we must protect private property, and that is what we will continue to do,” he said.
Twenty-six years into democracy following the end of apartheid, land ownership remains a thorny issue in South Africa, which is one of the world’s most unequal countries, according to the World Bank.
President Cyril Ramaphosa launched a drive in 2018 to change the constitution to make explicit provision for the redistribution of land without payment to address inequality.
According to the most recent census figures, at least 2.9 million to 3.6 million people live in informal settlements in South Africa, although experts say the real number is likely much higher.
People like Tantaswa say they are tired of waiting decades for government-assisted housing.