Does this city work for you?

As the City of Cape Town cracks down on the existence of its homeless population, the question arises of if the city is truly there to serve the majority of its inhabitants. 

By Ilhām Choonara

This article is exclusive to the Online Edition 3 of VARSITY News

The City of Cape Town has made a Street People Complaints Form public on social media. The form lays out a draft that any resident or business can fill in, lodging a complaint against ‘street-people’ in their area. Is this a proactive step? Jean-Pierre Smith from Safety and Security, City of Cape Town, says yes. I personally see this egregious act as further marginalizing people who are already vulnerable. When will the authorities abide by simple ethics and morality?

The City faces a court case from 11 houseless people who want some of Cape Town’s by-laws against noise and space occupation declared unconstitutional. They say that the by-laws criminalize and discriminate against homeless people.

What has the City had to say for itself? Smith said in an interview that complaints about homeless people are not uncommon, adding emphasis on how unsustainable it is to have street people living in public spaces. These complaints concern the impact on local communities and businesses. “Our legal services department is also entitled to go and ask the people impacted to supply their comments and inputs for the court to understand the fuller picture”, says Smith. My question is: how does this endeavour humanize homeless people? It is not simply gaining perspective; neither is it addressing real causes of homelessness. It appears to be a way to strengthen the City’s position in court and extends to its mission of anti-homelessness.

Allowing criticizing discourse about street people from citizens who are not in their shoes does not address South Africa’s spatial inequality. Productively managing open spaces such as golf courses that use up to 45,99 hectares of land (which the city might renew a lease at a subsidized rate of R1 058 per year for another 10 years) could serve as a solution. However, the government is catering to the wealthy, while the poor majority remain houseless and are criminalized for it. Is this the city that works for you? 

“Ward councillors should not only be councillors of the rich but should be cognisant that they are also councillors of people living on the street,” said Buhle Booi of Ndifuna Ukwazi community organization. The governments of the past, its policies, as well as the people of South Africa, created a country where practical implications of racial discrimination are widely apparent. 

The City seeks abutment from residents and businesses by providing suggested wording in the complaint form. They are acting as though it were a petition in need of a few signatures: to recognize the rights of people forced to the streets, or to criminalize the way that they must live for the increased comfort of the wealthy? The existence of the public complaint form is inciting a negative discourse that seeks to criminalize homelessness. 

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