The City of Cape Town’s COVID-19 lockdown encampment in Strandfontein for up to 4 000 homeless people from around the greater city area. (David Harrison/M&G)
The City of Cape Town closed the now infamous and much-criticised temporary homeless shelter at Strandfontein last week.
The establishment of the shelter involved a large-scale operation, which included the removal and transportation of hundreds of homeless people off the streets of Cape Town, the initial accommodation in three large marquee tents, the use of shared ablution and sanitation facilities and congregations of large numbers of people in queues at meal times. The city, as it likes to repeatedly remind the public, provided meals, mattresses, ablution facilities and some healthcare assistance.
The first striking aspect of this operation is the rationale to establish a mass-tented camp on the outskirts of Cape Town. According to the mayor, Dan Plato, the site was selected for logistical and management advantages, being large enough to accommodate up to 2 000 homeless people and close to transport routes and hospitals. The decision to encamp homeless people (the majority of whom are black and coloured) touched a deep nerve for many South Africans.
Cape Town is no stranger to the creation of transit camps as a response to a public health crisis. In a country with a long history of forced removals and land dispossession, it is difficult not to see the similarities with the manner in which the Cape Colony responded to the outbreak of the bubonic plague in 1901. In order to prevent further spread of the plague and isolate the Cape Town central business district from infection, the authorities forcibly moved about 6 000 Africans to what is now called Ndabeni, where they were housed in approximately 600 tents.
As Professor Maynard W Swanson explains in a 1977 article titled: The Sanitation Syndrome: Bubonic Plague and Urban Native Policy in the Cape Colony, 1900-1909, “many officials and white citizens considered the move a major success, pointing the way to future policy and practice”.
Forced removals of black people close to white areas was also effected through the Public Health Act 36 of 1919. Public health laws were also used in tandem with the Slums Act 53 of 1934 to facilitate the building of housing on the Cape Flats. This shows a pattern of using highly infectious contagions as a justification to forcibly relocate black people from inner city slums and urban black townships to the outskirts of the city to protect the interests of the white minority population from the spread of diseases. It would appear, 120 years later, that the establishment of the Strandfontein shelter came straight from the colonial playbook.
Although the city will likely deny any continuity of prejudicial — racially motivated — thinking that may have informed its action at Strandfontein, it does nevertheless raise some serious questions about the operation. Why was the suburb of Strandfontein chosen over many other well-located areas and sports grounds such as Green Point Urban Park, Green Point cricket grounds or Rondebosch Common which are even closer to hospitals? Did the city consider how this type of mass relocation of homeless people would reignite collective and generational trauma reminiscent of colonial and apartheid forced removals, especially considering the use of a public health disaster to effect social cleansing?
Did the city perhaps think that the local Strandfontein residents would not object or object less than residents in the white suburbs? Or worse, were the decision-makers ignorant of the deep psychosocial trauma inflicted by past forced removals?
Whatever it was, there are too many similarities for it to be coincidental.
The city adopted a large-scale police operation to actively search for and remove homeless people from around the city. In the week the shelter was established, the city of Cape Town mayoral committee member for transport, Felicity Purchase, proudly posted on social media that she would go with private security to scout for homeless people who were “hiding out” in Fish Hoek, Clovelly and Sun Valley.
During that week, a voice note of an unknown official went viral, warning that all homeless people who refused to go to the shelter would be taken straight to Pollsmoor Prison. The voice note said: “So basically, because today is the first time of this lockdown transportation of the vagrants and so forth, we taking those that want to come, right? So you want to fight with us or whatever, we say ok. We leave you and then tomorrow we joined, we bringing SAPS and the army and we going to do forceful removals. If they are still around on Wednesday, after the forceful removals has been done, they are being sent straight to Pollsmoor for a 12-month quarantine. So they going to go to jail for a year. All the paper has already been set in. So they not going to the holding cells. We put them in the back of the van and taking them straight through to Pollsmoor. So, basically in those three days, there will be no vagrants on the street … [laughing] … So ja, that’s the plan now. I’ve just got information from my senior. So that’s the plan happening here at the moment.”
Perhaps this is the moment that the city had been waiting for — a chance to finally round up all homeless people to “cleanse” the streets of Cape Town? Although not all homeless people were forcibly removed, some individuals were forced into the back of police vans against their will. It is hard to make sense of the Pollsmoor threat and Alderman Purchase’s exuberance in tracking homeless people down and threatening incarceration. One explanation perhaps lies in the general approach of the city towards homelessness. Both the fining of homeless people last year as well as the recent amendment of the Streets, Public Places and the Prevention of Noise Nuisances By-law of 2007 reflect a general approach that criminalises, rather than cares for, homeless people.
Another serious concern that warrants reflection is allegations of mistreatment at the Strandfontein shelter. For instance, why were homeless people from Somerset West informed that they were only going to the shelter for an hour to get tested, only to learn that this was more permanent? It implies that those involved knew that taking homeless people off the streets was fundamentally misconceived and could never be achieved without manipulation.
When the Somerset West group tried to leave, they were met with violence. Watching videos of this altercation personally reminded me of the state force used against workers in the Marikana massacre, which sadly resulted in the death of 36 miners. Although, thankfully, the situation did not escalate to the same level, it is again unfortunate that violence is often the first response by peace officers in situations of unrest.
The treatment of homeless people at the shelter was worsened by the arbitrary policing of their behaviour. In particular, some homeless people at the Strandfontein shelter were fined by law enforcement officers for using foul language. Maybe this was a lack of judgment by the officer? Perhaps, he simply didn’t consider that homeless people had been removed from their communities, felt encaged, were potentially suffering from severe drug withdrawals or other medical issues? Whatever the mind of the law enforcement officer, the fine was imposed and the homeless person may now have a criminal record.
Perhaps most concerning is the manner in which the city has responded to issues publicly. The city reacted defensively when the conditions at the shelter became public through the media, civil society organisations, human rights monitors appointed by the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) and politicians.
The mayor derrided comments by politicians as “shameful”. In statements, he alleged that criticism of the shelter was politically motivated, referring to “political organisations and politically-aligned NGOs” or to “political and related groups”.
It is concerning that the city regards all political party views as illegitimate solely because these views are expressed by politicians. The city’s attempts to delegitimise free speech is exceptionally dangerous to upholding the democratic values of accountability, participation and transparency. Government should never hold absolute power over public opinion.
That the city felt the need to censor and control how the shelter (and criticism against it) was perceived raises some interesting questions. Why does the city feel the need to act so defensively? Is it possible that the city is trying to conceal something? What else happened at the Strandfontein shelter that the public doesn’t know about? We know that a young woman was raped at the shelter. We know that a person died. But what else? The truth is that we don’t know, and won’t know for sure, because as public criticism of the shelter heightened, access to it was closed off. The city first denied access to news reporters, and then, alarmingly, to SAHRC human rights monitors.
The city was so aggrieved (or threatened) by the SAHRC that it approached the Cape Town high court for an order to interdict the SAHRC monitors from accessing the shelter and “publishing and/or disseminating reports relating to the site which are untrue, have not been presented to the city for comment before publication and/or dissemination”. On May 14, the court granted an interim order allowing monitors to access Strandfontein and monitor potential human rights abuses. The matter is due back in court on June 9.
Public interest in what happened at Strandfontein, as well as with the mistreatment of homeless people during the Covid-19 lockdown, will probably not wane. Many of these issues have touched a deep societal and political nerve that needs to be dealt with further care and scrutiny.
Jonty Cogger is an attorney at Ndifuna Ukwazi Law Centre, an activist organisation in Cape Town, where he specialises in constitutional and human rights litigation