Blindness: How the Strandfontein camp was set up to fail


In the 1960s, on the outskirts of Cape Town, the apartheid government set up the village-suburb of Stranfontein as a seaside resort for the city’s coloured population who were then barred from so-called white beaches such as Muizenberg. Its existence is owed to an ideology that sought to quarantine people according to manufactured racial categories. 

One of the first attempts to do this was the 1901 outbreak of the bubonic plague where Africans were forcibly removed to a field hospital which eventually grew into the township of Ndabeni. From that moment onward, the dogma of apartheid was inseparable from the medicalised sequestering of those deemed “unsanitary” and “vectors for disease”.

The social, physical and psychological structures apartheid created still remain. So too does the doctrine of development by removal and separation. This is evident in national housing policies that ignore the need for housing for the poor in the city and wealthy suburbs. 

It is this ideology that is reflected in the City of Cape Town’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

In his celebrated novel, Blindness, Jose Saramago describes a fantastical drama of a plague of “white blindness” that hits a city, causing panic and a militarised attempt to forcibly quarantine those affected in an abandoned mental asylum. The affliction should be understood as an allegorical presentation of society’s blindness to the way we treat one another; hence, it spreads in a matter of days throughout the population.

If our current socioeconomic system attempts to govern the majority through the discipline of the market, what happens to those who refuse or fail to conform? Saramago argues that our solution to those who challenge governmentality, those who disrupt the normal workings of society, those we fear as abnormal and dirty, is often to quarantine them.

In other words, there is no state of exception. Attempts to remove street-based people from the city centre and wealthy suburbs has long been a goal of the City of Cape Town. For example, in the 2010 Street People Readiness Plan, designed by long-time member of the mayoral committee for safety and security JP Smith, the World Cup was used as justification for the removal of hundreds of people from the city centre to the infamous Blikkiesdorp relocation camp. 

The city’s response to the threat of Covid-19 has been, once again, removing people to a distant internment camp in Strandfontein.

Much of the criticism of the camp has focused on its conditions and the types of services it did not offer, despite its much greater than R30-million price tag a month (at least R600 per person a day). For weeks, more than a thousand people slept there without mattresses and they cannot get toothpaste, soap, clean clothes and sanitary pads. And, despite all the money spent building dozens of tents throughout the camp, complete with isolation areas and a donated eight-container health-hub, the actual healthcare and psychosocial service provided is insufficient and hard to access. All of these issues with the camp could easily have been fixed had the city bothered to listen to its detainees.

But we must go deeper if we are to see why the camp’s failure remained inevitable.

By identifying street-based people as a problem, perceiving them as vectors for urban blight, crime and disease, public discourse has previously lent credence to securitised solutions. But surveillance and harassment by law enforcement’s Displaced Peoples Unit has had a limited effect, leaving street-based people to remain an eyesore for the privileged classes. 

When the national government announced a State of Disaster in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, however, the creation of a centralised camp in Strandfontein to forcibly detain Cape Town’s homeless became Smith’s dream solution: surgically remove the problem and quarantine it out of sight and out of mind. In other words, preventing Cape Town’s most vulnerable from getting the virus was never the actual aim; rather, the city views people living on the street themselves as the health threat, as the embodiment of a societal virus.

Quarantine may work in specific situations for people suspected of having Covid-19, but it is not a feasible way to configure society. The Strandfontein camp was an attempt to restructure where people live, to resegregate the city whose street population actively defies racial and economic boundaries. In doing so, the city removed more than a thousand people from their neighbourhoods where they sleep and work. By concentrating them in an isolated camp, the city became directly responsible for every aspect of their lives, including their dignity — something that, in a mass-camp setting, is impossible to achieve.

As I have shown in a recent report submitted to the South African Human Rights Commission, the physical structure of the Strandfontein camp — the annulment of freedom and the abolition of personal space save for red lines designated with duct tape — made it impossible for basic health precautions such as physical distancing and personal cleanliness.

In statements on the matter, the city has emphasised that distancing is an individual responsibility of those at the camp. But when you are held in a mass detention facility against your will (simply because you don’t have a permanent address), the matter of individual responsibility is a farce. It is impossible to distance yourself from someone who gets up in the middle of the night to go to the toilet and coughs in your direction on the way. A Massachusetts Institute of Technology study has shown that coughs and sneezes can launch viruses such as Covid-19 as far as six metres. One has little chance in a giant communal tent to protect oneself from a person nearby who is possibly sick with infectious tuberculosis or the novel coronavirus.

This is why when the city de-densified the three largest tents in the camp, from about 500 people each to about 250, it was merely plastering over a structural problem: 250 people in one huge tent not only ignores national Covid-19 regulation 18(2) against groups of more than 50 people, but it removes any capacity for the individual to exercise the necessary health precautions to protect themselves from the virus. Thus, other health issues associated with camp-like settings, such as lice and diarrhoea, were pervasive throughout the camp. And because isolation of people with tuberculosis in the medical section did not function as intended, the spread of TB and Covid-19 also became inevitable.

The bad news is our worst fears have now come true. According to the nongovernmental organisation (NGO), Streetscapes, on Monday a person who left the camp, tested positive for Covid-19. Given the roughly week-long incubation period of the virus, she could not have contracted it anywhere else but inside Strandforntein camp (from other detainees, city officials or from law enforcement personnel who run the camp.

The problem was the camp itself. The sickness is our society, which casts out the most vulnerable, deeming them necessary for social quarantining. The solution cannot, therefore, aim to fix what is on the surface; the only solution is the phased closure of the camp and all other mass congregate facilities and the opening of free, quality, dignified, permanent housing that provides private rooms for people to store their belongings and safely distance themselves from whatever affliction that may come their way.

If the city can afford to spend R18 000 per person a month at Strandfontein, they can certainly afford a couple thousand a month to cover the cost of putting them up in empty student residences or hotels during the lockdown or, better yet, into permanent homes. Additional forms of support and services can be made available through partnerships with NGOs.

Sometimes solutions are only complex because we’ve placed layer upon layer of excuses to mask what is really going on. Homelessness, if we peel away the diversion, has a very simple solution: the provision of public housing, particularly in the inner city. This gets at the root of the problem and ensures that a city’s most vulnerable population are reintegrated into the social fabric, rather than separated from it. 

Given current discourse, the government can not imagine anything else but segregation through social quarantine. But alternatives are possible. Those who remain in the camp have established a forum to organise and assert their own agency. As in Saramago’s novel, a quarantine-based society must be broken by the very people who society has damned. Like the escapees from quarantine in Blindness, we will have to look to street-based people themselves to forge a new path of social solidarity as the basis of a better society.

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Jared Sacks
Jared Sacks is founder of a children’s nonprofit organisation and a PhD candidate in the department of Middle Eastern, South Asian and African studies at Columbia University .

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