"I'm so happy. I had no home and my three children and I could have been sleeping on the street. I do piece jobs for a living."
That is how Nomathamsanqa Watala, one of about 400 inner city residents who faced eviction from derelict city buildings in Johannesburg, reacted to a Constitutional Court ruling by Justice Zak Yacoob that the Johannesburg city council "could not" evict them.
Yacoob took about 10 minutes to deliver the unanimous order to a court filled to capacity by inner city dwellers wearing red T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan: "Stop evictions and electricity cut-offs."
The case first came to court when the city applied to evict about 400 people from buildings in Olivia Road, Berea and Main Street, saying the buildings were unsafe and unhealthy.
The high court refused to have the squatters evicted and ordered the city to remedy its "inadequate" housing programme.
On appeal, the city was granted the order by the Supreme Court of Appeal "on condition" it provided the residents with alternative accommodation.
After an appeal was made to the constitutional court by the residents the two parties were ordered to engage "meaningfully with each other" to address the situation.
It was finally agreed that the residents would not be evicted, that the buildings be upgraded and temporary accommodation found for them and a permanent housing solution discussed.
The agreement was made an order of the court.
In the unanimous judgment yesterday, Yacoob said: "It is essential for a municipality to engage meaningfully before ejecting people . if it means they will become homeless.
"People must be treated like human beings. A court must take into account whether there has been meaningful engagement before granting an order evicting people from their homes."
He said the appeal court "should not have granted" the eviction order because there had been no engagement.
He said that while the city had an obligation to eliminate unsafe and unhealthy buildings it had a constitutional duty to provide access to adequate housing. Potential homelessness must be considered when deciding whether to evict people.
l The city was ordered to pay the applicants' costs.