We’re not leaving and we’re not backing down.
That was the message from scores of vagrants, many of them openly smoking whoonga, who ran amok in the lower CBD late on Thursday.
The aggressive crowd flooded downtown Pietermaritzburg yesterday evening as they resisted attempts by police and municipal security guards to remove them from the area.
Three Witness journalists were forced to run for their lives when the angry mob turned on them, shouting that they did not want any reporters at the scene.
Sheltering in a shop on one of the street corners, one journalist was forced to dash out to the Witness car after some vagrants realised he was part of the media. They began to chase after him, shouting that they were “coming to get” him. He was forced to remove his shirt in an effort to disguise himself from the vagrants.
The journalist managed to get to the car and fetch his colleagues who were still in the shop.
Following the forced closure of the notorious eMatsheni Beer Hall in December last year, traders and vagrants who were evicted from the beer hall have occupied a nearby taxi rank.
The crowd of hostile vagrants and traders took up residence in the taxi rank, behind the toilets.
The Ematsheni taxi rank yesterday resembled a gloomy, drug-dealing dungeon. Only a few commuters and shoppers moved swiftly in and out of the rank, clutching their belongings as a large crowd of vagrants lurked nearby, smoking whoonga in full view of the public.
Passengers who use the taxi rank said they felt unsafe because of the vagrants.
“These people sell and smoke whoonga in broad daylight with everyone watching,” shouted one of the angry bystanders.
A woman who was standing close to the crowd of vagrants carrying plastic bags, said she was scared to walk past them.
“I have to take a taxi home on the other side but I am terrified and really do not know what I will do,” said the woman.
A man who works at a nearby shop said he was fed up with the vagrants. “We are just waiting for them to attack us.” He warned there would be serious repercussions.
One vagrant told a Witness journalist before the crowd turned on them, that they were being treated unfairly and they would resist the police and municipal security, who were trying to remove them from the rank, with all their might.
“We are not going to take this lying down. We should have at least been given a warning before being chased out like dogs like this again,” said the vagrant.
He added that besides the taxi rank, they had nowhere else to go.
A nearby shop owner, who asked not to be named, said he had heard gunshots during the standoff.
He said municipal security guards were shooting rubber bullets at the crowd of angry vagrants who stood their ground, planning their counter-attack on the police and guards.
He added the municipality needed to “sort things out” as the vagrants had been running amok on the streets since their occupation of the rank.
Msunduzi Safe City general manager Lucas Holtzhausen said their street cameras had captured footage of the vagrants looting behind the rank.
He said that as soon as police and municipal security guards arrived at the rank, the vagrants fled in all directions.
Police spokesperson Captain Khosi Khonjelwayo said the commotion was between the security guards and municipal security who were removing the illegal shacks near the Sweetwaters taxi rank as vagrants were using them as shelters.
“The police were called to intervene and no civilians were attacked. No arrests were made.”
She said police were monitoring the situation last night.
Beer hall’s closure ‘part of plan to redevelop city’
Last year’s closure of the Ematsheni Beer Hall is part of Msunduzi Municipality’s process of implementing an urban regeneration programme for central Pietermaritzburg, including the Ematsheni area, to attract investors.
Msunduzi municipal spokesperson Siyabonga Hlongwa said at the time of the closure that a great number of “smart businesses” had already moved away from the city centre because of the perceived higher crime rate.
Hlongwa said many of the buildings in the city centre were also in a state of structural disrepair, and eventual abandonment made them prone to illegal occupation and possible collapse, as had been the case in Ematsheni.
Msunduzi’s plan for Ematsheni and similar central areas is to remove the old and decaying structures and replace them with new and improved ones.
With better infrastructure, Msunduzi hopes to bring back “higher income groups” into the central business district, leading to more jobs.
He said alternative accommodation would be provided for residents in demolished areas.
However, this was not the case for Ematsheni Beer Hall.
“There are no residents on site [at the beer hall], except criminals who are using the site for criminal activity,” said Hlongwa.
Hlongwa added that the municipality’s social support services would, however, be provided for affected parties.
The municipality has released a tender notice calling on interested developers and investors to submit proposals for the redevelopment of the beer hall.