Maverick Citizen

PHOTO ESSAY Elections 2021

Overcoming the obstacles to voting when you are homeless

05/11/2021 Occasionally they are allowed ‘inside’, after sanitising of course. But are we also trying to sanitise our society by excluding them? Often Municipalities resort to ‘solutions’ that simply hide the problem or move it. But the sight of homeless people on our street corners is a pertinent reminder of the failure of our cities: amidst such wealth there are still people whose basic needs are not met – for shelter, sanitation and healthcare. (Photo: Samora Chapman)

Tens of thousands of people in South Africa are homeless and living on the street. They too have rights, a stake in our democracy and a right to vote. This photo essay traces the quest for dignity, recognition and enfranchisement of a group of homeless people in Durban.

The Denis Hurley Centre in Durban has been working with homeless people to help them to engage in the recent local government elections – just like any other citizens. This was part of a wider initiative of the National Homeless Network to create a National Homeless Manifesto and promote it to the politicians and parties competing to run our major metros.

Samora Chapman, a Durban-based photographer and storyteller, has been recording the journey of the past few weeks captured here in 20 images which challenge us to imagine a society that lives up to its ambition to include rather than exclude.

Lungelo Khumalo, originally from Pietermaritzburg, was a proud voter. “It’s important to vote for my country,” he said. “I want to get off the street, get a job and get shelter. I’m not smoking drugs… I lost my job many years ago and couldn’t pay rent so that’s how I ended up on the street. I hope my life gets better.” (Photo: Samora Chapman)
Wonderboy Mathenjwa was delighted to be voting so his voice could be heard. “I want change, bra,” he said after casting his vote. “What we need as homeless people are job opportunities and safe places to sleep.” (Photo: Samora Chapman)
The homeless men and women present had questions for the politicians across a number of areas reflected in the five pillars of the Manifesto: Is the Municipality going to invest in shelters? Why do they not provide 24-hour access to sanitation? How are homeless people supposed to access Government healthcare? Why do they have to sleep in constant fear of attack by Metro Police? Why is the Municipality making it harder for people to earn a living in the informal economy? (Photo: Samora Chapman)
Gary Fared spoke articulately about the frequent promises made by politicians and officials and the constant experience of disappointment that homeless people feel. Why are they always at the back of the queue when it comes to houses, or jobs, or skills training, or practical help of any sort? Is it because politicians do not take them seriously? (Photo: Samora Chapman)
The right to vote is one right enshrined in our Constitution; the democratic governments that result from our elections should then ensure delivery of a range of other socio-economic rights. This homeless man is holding firm to a copy of the Constitution, though from his experience of living on the streets he knows at first-hand how few of those rights he truly enjoys. (Photo: Samora Chapman)
Registering to vote is a source of great pride: a public recognition for a homeless person that they count no less than any other South African. For Nhlakanipho Masango, it was a moment to celebrate with TV soap star, Mpume Mthombeni, there to encourage and affirm those who were registering. (Photo: Samora Chapman)
The lack of an identity can be literal – half of all homeless people lack the ID that is the key to unlocking so many of the services to which they have a right, from education, to work, to Government grants. (It is estimated, for example, that fewer than 20% of homeless people in Durban were able to access the Government’s emergency Covid grant). Securing an ID for Sifiso Ntanzi was for him a major step towards reintegration. (Photo: Samora Chapman)
Food not only fills people’s stomachs but also helps restore dignity especially when served with respect and care. Sitting and enjoying a meal with stars from stage and screen (such as Lisa Bobbert and Aaron McIlroy) reassures people that they are not forgotten even when sometimes they feel that they have no identity. (Photo: Samora Chapman)
In all our cities, the main response to homelessness comes from faith communities – churches, mosques, synagogues and temples that provide food, a safe space and other services. No one should be left starving in cities where so much food goes to waste. Between the Catholic Cathedral and the Jumma Masjid, the Denis Hurley Centre brings together all faith communities to serve over 15,000 meals every month. (Photo: Samora Chapman)
Homeless men and women are all too visible in our cities – but we often do not really see them, and we very rarely hear them. Whether literally or symbolically, they are outside the fences that surround our ‘safe’ worlds, peering through to try and get a glimpse of what others are enjoying. (Photo: Samora Chapman)
And so at 9pm the ballot boxes were sealed and the counting began. In the end the ANC councillor for Ward 28, Lucky Khuzwayo was returned with 35% of the vote (though he actually gained 41% of votes cast at the DHC). Turnout at 25.7% was below the average for KZN at 36%. Now the real work begins. Can the homeless rely on their local councillor and their newly re-elected ANC Council to listen to their voices and build a city that recognises the needs of all its residents? Or will we have to wait another 5 years before the political parties include the homeless in our hard-won democracy. (Photo: Samora Chapman)

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