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Land occupiers set building alight with family inside

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“All I could hear was frantic screaming” says employee of Cremona Cheese Factory

Photo of protesters at Cremona Cheese Factory
Faced with high rentals and overcrowding, residents of EbuMnandini, an informal settlement in Tshepisong in the west of Johannesburg, have tried to occupy land belonging to Cremona Cheese Factory. Photo: Zoë Postman
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Carrie Esterhuizen and her two small children were in the hostel at the Cremona Cheese Factory in Tshepisong west of Johannesburg when angry land occupiers set the building alight on Friday afternoon, 25 May.

Her husband Fredrick Esterhuizen told GroundUp he had been working for the factory as a security manager for about a month before the incident.

Carrie Esterhuizen and the children, aged four and 11 months old, were at home when the occupiers, residents of EbuMnandini informal settlement in Tshepisong, broke the fence and set the building alight. They were not hurt.

The residents had previously tried to occupy the land next to the factory but the Johannesburg Metro Police Department demolished their shacks on the same day. The owner of the land, Antonio Cremona, filed for an eviction order in April. The case was heard in the South Gauteng High Court and an interim eviction order valid until September was granted.

“My wife phoned me and all I could hear was frantic screaming so I rushed down to the house,” said Fredrick Esterhuizen. “I managed to grab my wife and kids just before one of the petrol bombs exploded in the lounge.”

Carrie Esterhuizen said she could smell the petrol bomb as she was calling her husband for help. “I tried not to think about [the petrol bomb] and focused on getting my kids out of the house,” she said.

Fredrick Esterhuizen said he had taken his family to the factory office. “Looking out the office window I could see my house burning down. We didn’t have time to take anything with us so we lost everything,” he said.

Cremona’s personal assistant Carol Cooke said the fire had destroyed Esterhuizen’s identification documents, and the children’s school uniforms and books. She said the occupiers had entered the building and stole items.

Occupiers have said they need the land because they can no longer afford to pay rent as they are unemployed. They say the land had been vacant for 23 years and is a safety concern because there is no fence and the grass is long.

But Cooke said the property used to be fenced but the fencing “kept getting ripped down and stolen”. She said the land had not been developed because it had been tied up in a deceased estate until 2015.

“Land invasions are illegal no matter how you look at it. Taking what doesn’t belong to them makes them no better than the criminals that they complain about,” said Cooke.

“Threatening people with stones, guns, sticks, petrol bombs, shovels and pangas is no better than the criminals that they decry,” she said.

Six people have been arrested on charges of public violence and an arson case has been opened at Kagiso Police station, according to spokesperson Solomon Sibiya.

Efforts to get comment from the land occupiers over the past day have been unsuccessful.

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TOPICS:  Housing Violence