Concern for the homeless starts at home

Concern for the homeless starts at home

Homeless people in Richards Bay. Photo: Zululand Observer

Government’s attitude to the homeless is a reflection of SA society, where the weight of your wallet determines how many rights you enjoy.

Cape Town’s DA-led local government has found itself at the centre of a controversy after reports detailed how it planned to fine homeless people for by-law infringements.

This is not the first time the party has been in trouble over its treatment of the homeless in Cape Town.

In 2016, DA councillor Shayne Ramsay came under fire following a Facebook post calling for the removal of homeless people from Sea Point and even tried to organise a “march against grime” in an attempt to have the homeless forcibly removed from the area’s promenade.

More recently, another DA ward councillor, Wandisile Ngeyi, was met with a backlash after he said those who helped the homeless were enabling them and “giving irresponsibly”.

And while the party is often accused of not caring about the poor, including by its former member and Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille, it would be disingenuous to act like the ANC has set a good example when it comes to local government treatment of the homeless.

The governing party’s provincial secretary Faiez Jacobs said the party was “appalled and disgusted” by reports that the homeless in Cape Town might be fined, but ANC-run governments have authorised raids – in which law enforcement is often accused of harassing the homeless and confiscating their belongings, in places including Pietermaritzburg and Durban.

And while Herman Mashaba’s Johannesburg government has also been accused of trampling on the rights of the homeless during raids, Johannesburg’s infamous Operation Clean Sweep, which targeted not only people living on the street but other poor South Africans such as informal traders, took place back in 2013, when the ANC were still in the driving seat in Joburg.

The by-laws that would lead to the fining of the homeless and worse – these raids – are almost exactly the same as the ones in all our major metros – whether run by the DA or ANC, and reports of these by-laws being ruthlessly enforced have surfaced all over the country.

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But any real conversation about the homeless must begin not by working out which political party to blame, but by normal South Africans, particularly those on the wealthier side of the spectrum, taking personal responsibility.

The City of Cape Town says the call to fine the homeless for violating by-laws has come from residents, who have lodged “thousands” of complaints.

And let me not indulge in the very Joburg pastime of pretending the privileged in my city are better people than our Capetonian counterparts, my experiences show this is far from the case.

The homeless of Johannesburg undergo constant harassment at the hands of both private security and police, spurred on by middle class or wealthy residents who by default, through the weights of their wallets, have the power to get these enforcers to act.

The horrific way the homeless are treated led to me arguing with the residents of my local community Facebook group. They ganged up on a resident who called for collections of blankets and food for the people who sleep in a local park, accusing her of encouraging their vagrancy, as if by refusing to help them we’d inspire them to give up on homelessness and somehow magically and instantly acquire homes and jobs.

They will cite all sorts of bylaws and zoning rules to prove that the homeless are there illegally, and will openly lobby for them to be removed. But they have no answer when you counter that a much more important and weighty form of South African law – the constitution, exists to protect the rights of all individuals, particularly society’s most vulnerable.

There’s the right to freedom of movement: “Everyone has the right: – to move anywhere in South Africa; and – to leave South Africa if they so choose.”

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The right to dignity:

“Everyone has an inherent (inborn) dignity and the right to have his or her dignity respected and protected. No person should be perceived or treated merely as instruments or objects of the will of others. Every person is entitled to equal concern and to equal respect.”

The right to freedom, meanwhile, calls into question the legality of the raids the homeless are subjected to.

“Everyone has the right to freedom and security of the person, which includes the right: not to be deprived of their freedom without good reason; not to be locked up in prison without trial; to be free from all forms of violence”.

I am no hero in this fight against the ignorance of the residents on my suburb’s Facebook group.

I gave up the fight. While a few people sided with the woman who tried to start a collection for the homeless and myself, we were met with disdain, scorn, ridicule, and vitriol by the majority.

We were called all sorts of names, bleeding hearts and enablers and libtards. One woman tagged a lawyer in the area, who joined in on the insults and bombarded me with his legal justifications as to why the homeless should be bullied, then removed from our area so that its residents are spared the indignity of having to look at them.

Support for the homeless in my suburban community came from a small minority.

I wish I was surprised by this reaction. Before my fight on Facebook, I left our community WhatsApp security group after I realised I wouldn’t be able to resist answering those who expressed open hatred towards anyone who was thoughtless enough to be poor in our area.

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This ranges from the constant suspicions levelled at anyone poor, and especially black, who happens to move through our area, most of which are eventually discovered to work there.

Please can I say something, I would ask my wife.

And she – while equally appalled – would convince me not to. Because these are our neighbours, and we will see them at the community security meetings and when we drive past them in the street.

She was, understandably, afraid of becoming “those people”, of making enemies. We’re even worried about our habit of leaving our separated plastic bottles out for the recyclers that rummage through bins on rubbish day – we’ve been warned on the same WhatsApp group not to encourage them, as few in my area agree with my view that these recyclers are not a threat to safety in any way.

In the same group, there are constant calls from some residents to remove a woman who sits at a street corner hawking sweets, fruit and loose cigarettes at a small table she has set up.

There is one man in particular who constantly complains that what this woman is doing – which is just trying to do what she can to get by, as far as I can see – is illegal and makes our suburb look bad.

The irony of this is that, at the corner where this woman sells her wares, there is an adult sex shop and a pawn shop, both of which escape complaints about the reputation of our area – clearly the difference between an upstanding, legal business and an illegal disgrace to the neighbourhood comes down to the entrepreneur in question’s bank balance.

There’s nothing wrong with being angry about how the government treats our society’s most vulnerable.

But it may be more constructive to start by taking a look at your own community.

Daniel Friedman is digital news editor at The Citizen. 

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