The plight of Cape Town's homeless goes political

Eventually the volunteers had to leave the tent as a near-riotous situation broke out, inflamed by the presence of the politicians and news cameras.
Eventually the volunteers had to leave the tent as a near-riotous situation broke out, inflamed by the presence of the politicians and news cameras.
Image: Esa Alexander

When Strandfontein ward councillor Elton Jansen was told his community would carry the burden of housing thousands of homeless people on the Strandfontein sports field, he was not happy.

He was not consulted, he said, and he admits it was a burden no councillor in any suburb in Cape Town would willingly bear.

“No councillor or any ratepayer would like a site for street people in their ward, understandably so, because there are a lot of underlying factors that are connected to street people. But we need to find a way to deal with this matter, and that is where I’m at now,” he said.

A medical worker speaks to a patient at the City of Cape Town's controversial facility for the homeless in Strandfontein.
A medical worker speaks to a patient at the City of Cape Town's controversial facility for the homeless in Strandfontein.
Image: Esa Alexander

He had no choice. This was a military-enforced national lockdown. This was the Covid-19 pandemic, which was wreaking havoc across the globe, decimating health systems in first-world countries and taking thousands of lives.

“I was informed, and I said in my post [on Facebook on Tuesday] I was unhappy because I was not consulted. And I stick to that, because I was not consulted. But we have this plight here now. We have this concern with street people and the fight against Covid-19 and I really want to change the focus of me being unhappy due to not being consulted, which is a fact, and change the direction, because we now have the street people on our doorstep and we need to deal with it,” he said.

A fleet of buses had started depopulating the streets of Cape Town on Tuesday. The city’s new safe space in Culemborg under the N2 highway was evacuated and its residents moved out by midday.

At the site in Strandfontein a massive logistical operation was under way where large tents were being erected to house various facilities including a large medical centre and isolation facility complete with portable showers.

At least three separate tents were erected to house homeless people who were subdivided and grouped together according to the suburbs where they lived.

Homeless people in the medical tent at the City of Cape Town's facility to house the homeless in Strandfontein during the Covid-19 lockdown eat lunch while they wait in line for medical attention and medication.
Homeless people in the medical tent at the City of Cape Town's facility to house the homeless in Strandfontein during the Covid-19 lockdown eat lunch while they wait in line for medical attention and medication.
Image: Esa Alexander

Pressure was already mounting against the city from the ANC and the Good Party who criticised the city’s approach of centralising nearly 2,000 homeless people onto a site they claimed was unfit for the purpose. They also accused the city of using the Covid-19 pandemic as an excuse to get rid of Cape Town’s homelessness problem.

“The City of Cape Town must immediately shelve its medieval plans to dump homeless residents in marquees in the mud on the outskirts of town,” said Good Party secretary-general Brett Herron.

“Available options include the above-ground parking garages of the civic centre, the stadiums, empty government buildings like the Tafelberg School — or renting empty buildings from private property owners.

“The city should be ashamed at its opportunistic abuse of the coronavirus pandemic to forcibly remove homeless people from city and suburban environs and dump them on the Strandfontein sports ground,” he said.

A medical staff member at the City of Cape Town's controversial site to house the homeless during the COVID-19 lockdown period.
A medical staff member at the City of Cape Town's controversial site to house the homeless during the COVID-19 lockdown period.
Image: Esa Alexander

The ANC Youth League’s regional convener, Bulelani Yosana, accused the city and the provincial government of being “cruel, heartless and ruthless” in its treatment of the homeless.

On Tuesday afternoon a “riot” broke out at one of the camps for the homeless inside the city. Social media users spread videos of people running and shouting and breaking down a fence.

Herron said it was “no surprise to hear this afternoon that law enforcement officials at the internment camp had their hands full containing angry victims of this cruel city policy”.

Mayoral committee member for safety and security JP Smith referred to the situation as a “scuffle”.

“We can ... confirm that there was some conflict on-site, involving a newly arrived group of street people from Somerset West,” he said.

He claimed that the situation arose because individuals were under the impression that they would be able to return to their areas after being screened on site.

“When it became clear that they were required to remain in Strandfontein, a few of them pulled down one of the internal fences and four climbed over the perimeter wall,” he said.

He said that three of the four people who escaped were apprehended.

City of Cape Town officials try to maintain order as homeless people break down a barricade during a media tour of the controversial Strandfontein facility which houses the homeless during the Covid-19 lockdown.
City of Cape Town officials try to maintain order as homeless people break down a barricade during a media tour of the controversial Strandfontein facility which houses the homeless during the Covid-19 lockdown.
Image: Esa Alexander

“While some of the group have since indicated that they will remain on site, the city would like to make it clear that, according to SAPS, any person who leaves the site will be in violation of the national lockdown regulations and will be dealt with accordingly,” he said.

Chairperson for the Somerset West nightshelter, Jo Swart, denied that the 29 people who boarded the bus to Strandfontein were misled by her or her team.

“They weren’t under any wrong impression that they were going to Strandfontein for the course of the lockdown. They were fully informed. I think when they got there the understanding of what they saw was just something they wanted to rebel from.

“These street people are coming off drugs, they’re coming off alcohol, there’s a whole other dynamic to it. They get to a field, they’re hungry, there’s anxiety and clearly the camp was heading towards not being manageable because they’ve spent the whole day today not sending any more buses. We’ve been waiting for another bus and now we’ve just got news that the site is full and locked down and closed,” said Swart.

As if anticipating the fiasco which was to follow on Thursday when the city invited 30 media representatives to a site visit led by city officials Jansen said he wanted to urge political parties not to play politics.

“As much as we are unhappy about the lack of consultation we need to make sure the community is protected in the event of anyone jumping the fence.

“I want to urge all political parties, now is not the time to play politics. It is sad that we’re using this opportunity now, whilst we’re supposed to take the lead from President Cyril Ramaphosa where he invited all political parties in parliament they made that joint statement, yet here on the ground we’re fighting amongst one another,” said Jansen.

On Thursday, mayoral committee member for health and social development Zahid Badroodien, Smith, and mayor Dan Plato led the media contingent through the site.

Only a handful of journalists were allowed through the camp the previous day, others were told that the introduction of journalists with cameras into the camp would spark a volatile situation.

Badroodien assured the media that the city was not “trying to keep secrets about what it is that we are wanting to achieve here, about what we’re doing here”.

“The city is not wanting. It’s been very clear that when the lockdown was announced by the president we had three days to achieve what it is that he had set to be a mammoth task for the city, the temporary housing of almost 6,000 homeless people in the city,” he said.

Hundreds of homeless people stand in line during lunch time as volunteers hand out fruit juice to them in one of the camps for homeless people at the Strandfontein site.
Hundreds of homeless people stand in line during lunch time as volunteers hand out fruit juice to them in one of the camps for homeless people at the Strandfontein site.
Image: Esa Alexander

He said the site was chosen because it was the largest site with a wall and access to utilities such as water and electricity.

People were screened for Covid-19, TB, and criminal records. He said 11 people who tested positive for TB were being held in an isolation area and would be moved to a hospital facility. Twelve people were also being isolated pending the results of Covid-19 tests.

“You are asking me about public participation and I will offer to you there was no time for public participation,” said Badroodien.

He said if a public participation process had been followed the city would still be waiting for a space to house thousands of homeless people.

“I’m very grateful to the ward councillor for informing his community of what was a very difficult decision that we as a city had had to take and also difficult for the councillor to have to inform the community that this decision was taken at a facility that is very active where soccer and cricket is played,” he said.

Smith said there were not enough mattresses at the facility and that the NGO they relied on to supply the mattresses was having transport issues but that supply chain management procedures were being overridden in order to secure enough mattresses for all the camp’s inhabitants.

But when the media contingent arrived at one of the large tents where homeless people were standing in a queue for food there were complaints from the inhabitants about the conditions in the camp.

There’s not enough food, they claimed. They also said they were being held against their will and were not able to leave.

Smith denied this, saying people could “opt out” and were doing so at a rate of four people per day.

At the site of Plato and Smith and in the presence of the cameras the situation rapidly escalated. One of the people picked up a discarded bone from a previous night’s supper and threw it at Smith. Others then started pulling and pushing against the fence.

While Badroodien waited for homeless “representatives” of three Cape Town suburbs to come and speak to the media about their experiences, two women approached the media claiming they were being held at the site against their will and complained about the conditions.

Homeless residents at the Strandfontein site cheer each other on as chaos breaks out at the camp during a media visit on Thursday.
Homeless residents at the Strandfontein site cheer each other on as chaos breaks out at the camp during a media visit on Thursday.
Image: Esa Alexander

Wanita Davis from Wellington said she was rounded up by the police and taken to the facility after social workers took her daughter away.

“The social workers took my baby because of the coronavirus. After that I had to stay on the street because I didn’t want to go without my baby. On Sunday they just came with the van and said, 'come come, you must go', but by force. We didn’t have time to take our clothes or anything. I’m wearing the same clothes and the same underwear, it’s not right,” she said crying as she spoke.

She claimed that they were pepper sprayed by the law enforcement officers guarding the camp.

Badroodien denied the claims. He said many people at the camp were suffering from drug withdrawal and mental illness creating the conditions for an incendiary situation.

But, the representatives chosen by the officials to talk to the media said that in their camp the service provider taking care of them, on behalf of the city, was providing them with four meals a day.

Law enforcement officers in riot gear address homeless residents at the Strandfontein site amidst unrest during a media visit on Thursday.
Law enforcement officers in riot gear address homeless residents at the Strandfontein site amidst unrest during a media visit on Thursday.
Image: Esa Alexander

Alicia, a homeless resident from Wynberg, said she was confused about the current situation around Covid-19.

“When I got here, I got treated, we got screening. At the moment we’ve got 500 in a tent, none of us has the virus. Those of them that think they have the virus were separated. At the moment we are getting four meals a day and we are getting washed and everything,” she said.

“It’s very scary about this virus going on, we are just very confused about this virus,” said Alicia.

Shirley January from Muizemberg said there were 500 people in her tent.

She said various promises were made to them before going to the Strandfontein facility but none of them were met.

She said, however, that the service provider who was taking care of their camp, Oasis, was making sure they were well taken care of.

“When we came here, we were told we were going to have two meals a day, but then out of their own pockets they are providing us with four meals a day and they gave us some netball poles and board games. There’s a lot of activities and they’re just keeping us alive,” said January.

Alicia said that they needed information on what was happening with Covid-19. “It’s not like it’s a vacation for us. We need to move on with our lives, please”.

After they spoke, ANC Western Cape leader Cameron Dugmore unexpectedly took the seat occupied by Plato during a press conference before the media tour of the facility.

He claimed he was barred entrance to the facility before laying into the city for what he claimed was its mismanagement of the homelessness situation.

“What we’ve seen today is an indication that the attempt by the city to want to locate every homeless person in one particular venue is wrong and it’s not sustainable,” he said.

“I think the approach of local communities finding solutions — whether someone comes from Sea Point, whether someone comes from Bellville, Athlone, Gugulethu — looking at localised solutions because street people actually come from areas, they don’t live in the air,” he said.

“In the situation that we saw today we first consulted with the ratepayer associations, with the policing forums, they weren’t expecting detailed consultation, but they’ve been asking from the beginning for an operational plan, that has never been shared with them,” he said.

He said these organisations, who wanted to help, have not been brought “into the loop”.

“As MPs we were asked to be taken around. Then we went in, we went into the last camp,” he said.

He said there were no mattresses in the camp. He said people told them they had not been fed, and that there was no soap in the shower facilities.

He said volunteers and law enforcement officers told them they were given no protective equipment.

“Law enforcement officers told us that they themselves had to buy sanitiser and masks,” he said.

“We will be urgently after this be giving a report to our national ministers, and we want to appeal to the national and the provincial and the local government, this particular approach is not sustainable,” he said.

He acknowledged that while community halls were being earmarked as quarantine facilities there were a number of community halls and other facilities in the city which could have been used to house the homeless.

“Our visit here — I’m leader of the opposition, my colleague is on the social development committee — I don’t think you heard the word ANC once, we actually are here because as public reps we are essential services workers, we’ve got permits to travel,” said Dugmore.

It was the trigger to a shouting match reminiscent that witnessed between the homeless and officials earlier in the day.

“You are making assertions which are trite!” launched Smith across the room at Dugmore.

“Start with giving sanitiser to your law enforcement officers,” Dugmore responded.

“50,000 litres of sanitiser ...” said Smith.

“I’ll take you to five who’ve got no sanitiser,” said Dugmore.

Plato stood in the corner of the tent, with an embarrassed look on his face. “JP ...” he said under his breath watching the situation unfold.

Outside Jansen stood in the shade of the tent too embarrassed to even bear witness. What he had warned about the day before was unfolding and he reiterated his sentiments.

“There have been some high-level squabbles which we’ve all observed and I urge all of us to forget about what party we belong to and put our heads together to fight this common enemy. Now it’s not ANC vs DA, our common enemy is the coronavirus and people are going to die,” he said.


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