By Sifundiso Ndlovu
BULAWAYO – There were skirmishes at Westgate Compound in Bulawayo yesterday and police reinforcements with vicious dogs had to be called in twice to evict about 50 families from the National Railways of Zimbabwe (NRZ)-owned facility.
Five tenants were arrested and taken to Mzilikazi Police Station following a four-hour tense standoff as residents refused to budge.
Men formed human chains while women blocked entrances to the houses and the first group that wanted to evict them, comprising police officers, staff from the Messenger of Court and NRZ security personnel, failed to remove them.
Anti-riot police were then engaged but residents dug in, saying they wanted to be paid their outstanding dues first before they surrender the houses.
The resistance was only broken following the arrival of police dogs, at which point five suspected ringleaders were arrested.
As soon as the police dogs arrived, the police arrested the most vocal tenants and the Messenger of Court started removing property from the houses and dumping it outside the yard.
Locks to the houses were immediately changed.
The residents were resisting eviction on the grounds that the NRZ owes them outstanding payments as compensation for its decision to retain the houses when all other former employees elsewhere were offered the properties.
The rail company handed its houses to its serving and former employees in areas such as Sizinda and Queens Park suburbs, but retained ownership of the Westgate properties, allegedly because they fall under a protected area as they are near some fuel tanks and other NRZ facilities.
According to documents in possession of Chronicle, NRZ offered to pay $10,000 for those who were single and $35,000 for married people who were living at Westgate as compensation for failure to hand them the properties.
So far, the company, which is reeling under financial problems, has failed to pay them but those occupying the homes have been paying monthly rentals to the parastatal.
Residents were demanding that the company meets its side of the bargain before evicting them.
“We just want our money. Why should they call dogs on us when we are peaceful,” said the first tenant to be evicted, Atinelia Matope.
Matope had to be restrained by other tenants as she threatened to undress in protest against what she termed unfair treatment of her and her five children.
“Last time we stayed for four days in the open. We don’t want to remain here, we just want compensation as promised,” she said.
Most of those who were being evicted said they had nowhere else to go.
They said they did not have money to start a new life as the NRZ had not paid them.
“I have seven children and most of them are still at school so I don’t know what to do next,” said Pauline Chacha, another evictee.
NRZ public relations manager Fanuel Masikati said they were following a court order and company policy which allows a worker to stay for only three months in NRZ residence once he/she leaves the organisation.
“These people being evicted are mostly pensioners and dependants of former employees who have no right to continue staying at the compound. That compound is a security cantonment, declared a protected area,” he said.
Zanu PF provincial secretary for legal affairs Edward Ngwenya, who was at the compound, unsuccessfully tried to stop the evictions but the police ignored his pleas.
He queried the authenticity of a court order dated October 2013 that was used to evict the tenants.
Ngwenya said they were in possession of legal documents protecting the former NRZ employees from eviction.
“This is a serious matter that needs to be handled well. We can’t let our people suffer like this,” he said.
Ngwenya then promised the tenants that he would inform the party of their predicament and find a way to assist before driving off.
NRZ trucks were parked nearby and residents expressed fears that they would be dumped at unknown destinations. The latest evictions come two weeks after the Bulawayo City Council evicted people who were occupying one of its farms, Hyde Park Estate. Chronicle