The simmering animosity between Public Works and Infrastructure Minister Patricia de Lille and the City of Cape Town surfaced in the public domain this week. There have been previous confrontations, more recently over Cape Town’s water crisis.
Now, another crisis is unfolding – this time at the Wingfield military base and at a City-owned site in Bellville known as Paint City – involving a group of refugees who had been living in the Central Methodist Church in the city’s Greenmarket Square.
De Lille and Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi are in one corner and the City of Cape Town in the other. Caught in the middle are dozens of refugees with nowhere else to go.
Tensions erupted on 6 April when the two Cabinet ministers released a joint statement claiming that City of Cape Town officials were being less than truthful.
Essentially, the issue of what to do with the refugees occupying the Methodist Church became a burning one, not least because of the risk of the Covid-19 virus spreading among themselves and beyond.
The refugees had been living in the church since October 2019. They had tried calling on the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHRC) to repatriate them to a third country such as Canada, since they feared becoming victims of xenophobic violence in South Africa. This was never going to be a viable solution.
The situation was complicated further by language differences and factionalism that emerged within the refugees themselves, as explained here by Daily Maverick’s Karabo Mafolo and Sandisiwe Shoba.
From the Methodist Church to Wingfield and Paint City
Speaking to Daily Maverick, De Lille said she had been asked by the home affairs minister to find land in Cape Town to accommodate the refugees while South Africa remained under lockdown.
De Lille had identified state-owned land in Blaauwberg, but, she said, this option had been rejected by Western Cape Premier Alan Winde during informal conversations on WhatsApp.
She then suggested public land in the Zeekoevlei area on the Cape Flats. This, too, was rejected by the City of Cape Town on the grounds that it was too near a protected nature reserve. Again, these were informal communications.
On 28 March, soon after the lockdown began, de Lille said she and Cape Town mayor Dan Plato drove around the city looking for suitable public land on which to house the refugees. She said they went to a City-owned site in Bellville known as Paint City and to the Wingfield military base in Maitland. Later, they visited a Transnet property in the harbour area, but the premises needed an upgrade and was considered unsuitable.
De Lille and Plato subsequently agreed, that same day, that the Paint City site met the home affairs minister’s space requirements and that it should be used.
De Lille’s department then paid R60,000 to a Free State-based company for marquees, tents and other forms of accommodation for the refugees.
In a letter seen by Daily Maverick, De Lille informed Motsoaledi that:
“The City of Cape Town has agreed to utilise their site in Bellville known as Paint City for the temporary relocation of the non-nationals.” Assuming everything had been finalised, De Lille expected the relocation of the refugees to begin the following day – 29 March.
In the same letter to Motsoaledi, De Lille said that a site in Phillippi had been proposed by Winde and Cape Town mayoral committee member for Safety and Security JP Smith, but that she felt it was not suitable for the refugees.
An informal settlement already existed at this site, she said.
“This informal settlement in itself is very vulnerable due to the high population densities. The Philippi community has not been consulted in any way and this would result in an extremely volatile situation. In conclusion, this solution would be highly problematic from a human rights perspective,” De Lille said in her letter.
At the same time, De Lille told Motsoaledi that she would release public land at the Wingfield base to the Western Cape government and City of Cape Town to help accommodate the homeless – but only after she had spoken to the Ndabeni Trust, which owned some of the land after a successful land claim.
Things take a turn for the worse
In an undated letter from Motsoaledi to Winde, the minister writes:
“A disturbing picture is emerging from that briefing [between himself and de Lille] … I have been informed that the City of Cape Town is doing everything in its power to frustrate the progress regarding the immediate evacuation of the asylum seekers and refugees inside the Methodist Church and streets of Cape Town. The Minister of Public Works and Infrastructure volunteered to identify the land which I believe that the City of Cape Town is the one that ought to have performed that function. While the service providers were busy, the Metro Police of the City of Cape Town arrived and ordered that the activities should be stopped with immediate effect.”
Subsequent letters seen by Daily Maverick show a back and forth between Motsoaledi, de Lille, Plato and Winde, with all parties agreeing that a solution needed to be found. On 2 April, the police began removing the refugees from the church. The process went smoothly and the refugees were then transported to Paint City in Bellville, about 24km from the city centre.
Then, in a letter to Winde on 3 April, Motsoaledi blasted Plato for his role in events:
“It is mind boggling that the Executive Mayor states that ‘currently there is no provision for basic services like water and sanitation at Paint City site’. This is a function that falls squarely on his shoulders in terms of the directions issued by the Minister of COGTA [Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs]. He cannot at this stage throw up his arms in despair in the face of binding statutory duties imposed upon the municipality he leads. He cannot escape his statutory responsibilities by simply stating that ‘the City has no plan or resources and also do not plan to do so’.”
Things seemed to at that point quieten down… Until Plato sent out a statement on Sunday 5 April.
Confirming that he worked with de Lille on the process of relocating the refugees, Plato said:
“Unfortunately, for reasons that are still unknown to me, the removal of the refugees from the church at Greenmarket Square on Thursday carried out by SAPS, was premature and did not conform to our agreement in this regard. The Wingfield site was not yet ready for occupation and the church refugees were moved to the Paint City site by SAPS without the City’s agreement, while that site was also not yet ready.
“It is also important to note, that while the City did not support the removal of the church refugees to the Paint City site as it was contrary to prior agreements reached with the National Government, the fact is that the removal has taken place and any resultant overcrowding and/or health risks that are triggered at that site will need to be dealt with by all three tiers of government on a co-operative basis going forward.”
Plato said in the same statement that the City had procured tents, water tankers, health and safety supplies and ablution facilities at Wingfield to ensure the temporary site is “compliant with the regulations now in force”.
Later that day, De Lille and Motsoaledi released their joint statement. Motsoaledi was also interviewed on CapeTalk on 6 April, describing some of the City’s statements as “untrue”.
In the interview, Motsoaledi said the City should not be fighting the departments as everyone needed to unite in the fight against Covid-19. He also suggested he might ask the police to investigate whether Plato had hindered the relocation of the refugees.
DA vs De Lille – A tense history
As a DA member and erstwhile mayor of Cape Town, De Lille had several spats with her colleagues. Criticisms of her management of the Day Zero water crisis came from within her own party and the ANC. City council sessions were often disrupted and De Lille survived five motions of no confidence in two years.
Ultimately, following intervention by then party leader Mmusi Maimane, De Lille announced her resignation from the DA and gave up the mayoral chains on 31 October 2018. She was replaced by Plato, who, she says, she has “a lot of respect for”.
In December 2018, she and some of her long-time allies formed the GOOD Party. Five months later, in the 2019 national and provincial elections, the party gained two seats in the National Assembly and one in the Western Cape provincial legislature. De Lille was appointed Minister of Public Works and Infrastructure in President Ramaphosa’s new Cabinet.
But it seems the conflict over public land between de Lille, the DA-led city of Cape Town and the Western Cape government has lingered. It is common knowledge that local authorities are trying to get their hands on the Wingfield land for social housing, but De Lille won’t give it to them.
De Lille told Daily Maverick that she is over the “crèche politics” of the DA caucus in the City of Cape Town, and urged the City not use the Covid-19 crisis to exploit the land issue.
And what about the refugees?
While they were living in the Methodist Church, the group of refugees were split into two groups – one aligned to JP Balous and the other to Papy Sukami. Following a heated disagreement in February, Balous’ group remained in the church while Sukami’s supporters were kicked out. Sukami’s group set up shelters on the pavement outside the church, then drifted to various locations in the city.
Balous’ group was moved to Paint City on 2 April while those under Sukami’s leadership were moved to the Wingfield military base a few days later.
Sukami is not happy with the new arrangements. While they are living in a large tent with a wooden floor, he says things need to improve.
“Yesterday people slept with no mattress, no blankets. They are starving. We phoned the Gift of the Givers and the South African Red Cross but no one answered our calls,” Sukami told Daily Maverick.
However, according to Sandra Bahibitugu, speaking on behalf of the refugees at Paint City, Gift of the Givers provided meals for the group on Tuesday.
“They also gave us blankets. But help from the City? We haven’t seen any of them here,” she said, adding that officials from the departments of health and home affairs had visited the site. Sukami said he had seen no officials at the site other than security guards.
Bahibitugu confirmed that the Paint City shelter is equipped with showers, toilets and electricity, although the plug points aren’t working. She complained, however, that there are leaks in the tent:
“It’s cold and the last time it rained, the rain came inside.”
Wingfield also has electricity, but no plug points and, despite having toilets, there are still no shower facilities. At both shelters, the refugees are allowed to leave to procure essential services and are checked by security personnel before being let out. Bahibitugu said she heard rumours that 100 people from the Bellville site will be moved to Wingfield, but that very little information has been shared with the group since they were moved to Paint City. So far, she claims, there has been no screening for coronavirus at the shelter.
The City of Cape Town’s safety and security executive director Richard Bosman told Daily Maverick:
“The City moved just more than 450 refugees from Albertus Street in the CBD yesterday to Wingfield. There is no time frame yet for moving the refugees from Paint City to Wingfield”.
Bosman did not answer questions relating to medical tests or screenings, or if the City is providing meals and other services. In a separate response, Bosman told Daily Maverick:
What about Cape Town’s homeless population?
This week, the City announced that homeless people would be transported to the Strandfontein Sports Complex, where they would be accommodated until the end of the lockdown.
But according to GroundUp, this is already causing problems. Police allegedly shot at homeless people who had tried to escape from the complex. On 8 April, members of the media were told they were barred from the complex unless it was to attend media briefings.
The South African National Editors Forum (SANEF) criticised the decision. “Visits at prearranged times make it possible for the City to stage-manage the event, making it difficult for the media to hold to account and monitor the City officials and those responsible for the upkeep of this vulnerable community. SANEF wishes to state that the barring of the media in covering all these cases is completely contrary to the Covid-19 regulations that specifically allow journalists to operate as essential services,” said the forum in a statement on Wednesday evening.
In a statement also released on Wednesday evening, the City said:
“The temporary shelter has been set up to protect the occupants from the threat of Covid-19. It is, therefore, a controlled site and media are advised to be cognisant of this, but also to have consideration for the dignity of those on site. Because of the health risks, the site visit (on 9 April) will be the last opportunity for media access to the site”.
There’s still a week to go before the lockdown ends and, given that almost everyone believes an extension is on the cards, there is much potential for more conflict among rival politicians — and the hapless refugees themselves.
Additional reporting by Sandisiwe Shoba. DM
The City of Cape Town referred Daily Maverick to the following statement issed on 6 April when it was asked for additional comment:
STATEMENT BY THE EXECUTIVE MAYOR, ALDERMAN DAN PLATO
City fully focused on completing refugee and homeless operations
It is with much disappointment that I note the joint statement issued by the National Minister of Public Works, Patricia de Lille, and National Minister of Home Affairs, Aaron Motsoaledi regarding the relocation of the refugees and homeless in Cape Town.
In this time of crisis, we all need to work together to stop the spread of the Coronavirus.
The number one priority for all spheres of government must be to complete the relocation operations as soon as possible. City teams are working around the clock on our responsibilities in this regard.
For the record, I attach to this press release the letters that I have sent regarding the relocation of the refugees.
I have full faith in the city’s officials, senior management and the Mayoral Committee, who are working non-stop during this pandemic to ensure service delivery continues for the people of Cape Town. I will continue to work closely with the national and provincial government to ensure that we collaborate wherever possible to maximise the services we are delivering.
With regards to the accusations that have been made, let me say the following:
– We need to work together during this critical period and refrain from calling each other names.
– Despite claims to the contrary, at no point has anyone condemned the South African Police Service (SAPS) or any national minister, we have always engaged with the utmost respect and will continue to do so.
– We have observed and carried out our services 100% in line with the COVID-19 regulations, and regularly monitor the changes provided by the National Government and update our approach accordingly.
– All of the City’s actions to assist and relocate the refugees in the Cape Town CBD have been based on a meeting called by Minister Motsoaledi, and this meeting was minuted. The agreement was that National Government would make available the Wingfield site, and the City would provide services. We received a letter a week later confirming that Wingfield would be available.
– The Wingfield site will be ready by the end of today to honour the original agreement with Minister Motsoaledi, and we will relocate the remaining refugees on Albertus Street, in the Cape Town CBD.
– The fact remains that the South African Police Service (SAPS), through an instruction from National Government removed the refugees from the church at Green Market Square and placed them at the Paint City site in Bellville, before it was ready, and which was always intended to accommodate the homeless as part of our temporary emergency accommodation measures.
– We did not at any time condemn SAPS for this action, but pointed out that we were not in agreement with their plan to relocate the refugees to Paint City.
I 100% stand by what I have already said on the matter and will not be engaging on the matter any further.
My door remains open, and I hope that this totally unnecessary squabble will be set aside so that we can get on with trying to limit the spread of the Coronavirus and providing essential services for our residents.
I have and will continue to chair the almost daily Coronavirus meetings with the City’s top management and Mayoral Committee. We are all on the same page and know what is required to deliver the best services possible to the people of Cape Town during this crisis. – Issued by: Media Office, City of Cape Town
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