/ 8 August 2008

Grootboom dies homeless and penniless

Irene Grootboom was the woman whose name became known around the world for enforcing the state’s obligation to respect socio-economic rights, especially of the homeless.

Yet, when she died this week in her forties, she was still homeless and penniless.

Eight years ago the Constitutional Court ruled in Grootboom’s favour, saying that she and others living in an informal settlement on Wallacedene sports ground near Kraaifontein could not be evicted without being given alternative accommodation.

Crucially, the court found that the primary failure by the state was the inadequate housing programme, which didn’t make sufficient provision for people in urgent need.

It was the first Constitutional Court judgement on socio-economic rights that found that the state had not complied with its obligations and provided an order compelling government to take action on socio-economic grounds. The Grootboom judgement became the foundation case in assessing the state’s responsibilities on socio-economic rights and has been used as the basis of other legal arguments. It was a key component of the Treatment Action Campaign’s successful court case against the government for its delays in providing effective measures to cut mother-to-child transmission of HIV.

In its judgement the court explained what the state’s obligations are, with consequent implications for state planning. A settlement between the opposing parties was made into a court order, in terms of which the national and provincial governments were to provide for the needs of Grootboom and the 390 adults and 510 children in the informal settlement. The court instructed the Human Rights Commission to oversee implementation of its ruling.

Judge Richard Goldstone, a Constitutional Court judge at the time of the hearing, described the Grootboom judgement as unique, saying it will be remembered as ”the first building block in creating a jurisprudence of socio-economic rights”.

Grootboom’s victory gave legal muscle to the poorest of the poor and has been studied around the world. Her legal representative at the time, Ismail Jamie, said the Grootboom decision was ”undoubtedly one of the two or three most important judgements the Constitutional Court has made since its inception”.

This week Jamie said that Grootboom’s death ”and the fact that she died homeless shows how the legal system and civil society failed her”.

”I am sorry that we didn’t do enough following-up after judgement was given in her favour. We should’ve done more. I feel a deep regret today,” he said.

Jamie described Grootboom as a true activist. ”She was one the most vulnerable of that community because she had kids. She was a woman and a strong person prepared to fight and take on the system. She was clear and resolute to take on this battle on behalf of her community, which was a completely integrated, mixed-race group.”

Western Cape general secretary Mcebisi Skwatsha said Grootboom’s death in a shack this week exposes all the fault-lines in the housing policies.

”Understanding that Irene died while waiting for a decent house is sad and it illustrates the challenges that we face to ensure that all have houses, security and comfort, as is promised in the Freedom Charter drafted 53 years ago.

”She was a true hero, a genuine leader of her people, a hero of the working class, a symbol of hope to the poor, homeless and marginalised. Her courage and commitment to the creation of a society in which all enjoy a better life will be sorely missed,” Skwatsha said. — Pearlie Joubert