South Africa


Stuck in first gear — Cape Town bylaws criminalise houseless persons sleeping in cars

Stuck in first gear — Cape Town bylaws criminalise houseless persons sleeping in cars
Dane Herrington calls his 1984 Ford Sierra “The Great White”. Purchased in 1989, the car has clocked up hundreds of thousands of kilometres on South Africa’s roads. For ten years, he has lived in his car. (Photo: Ashraf Hendricks)

People living in their vehicles face fines of R300 to R500.

When Dane Herrington goes to bed, he moves his belongings, books and clothing to the front of his beloved 1984 Ford Sierra. He sleeps on a large mattress at the back. He uses a shower at a petrol station. For ten years, he has lived in his car.

Since 1989, when he bought the “The Great White” Sierra, the qualified horticulturist, who is now 64, has clocked up hundreds of thousands of kilometres in pursuit of short-term work opportunities in Cape Town, Johannesburg, Pretoria and Waterval.

Unable to secure long-term work, he found himself homeless, with only his car. It was “a slow descent to where I am now”, he says. He doesn’t want to live in a car, he says.

He has his old age grant, a little money from family abroad, and help from people in the community. He says the increase in fuel prices has hit him hard.

For the past few years, he has been living in and around Table View.

Herrington avoids shelters for the homeless. They are too “crammed”, he says.

“It’s not the environment for someone who’s living in his car. I’ve got possessions in there, and they could get stolen … Whether it’s parked on the premises or not, it makes no difference,” he says.

Herrington thinks the City of Cape Town should allow people who have only their cars to live in, to park at abandoned caravan parks or covered parking lots with ablution facilities, for a small fee. “If you’re running your car, you’ve got to have some money,” he says.

But City bylaws make it illegal to live in your vehicle on public property, except in a “dire emergency or in a designated rest area”. Wayne Dyason, spokesperson for City law enforcement, said fines ranged from R300 to R500.

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To avoid issues with police or “the ratepayers”, Herrington parks on the grounds of a church in the evening. He leaves around 4am, before people arrive.

He spends most of his day in the library, “my office”. He uses the facilities there to email. He is also working on a book — “Enjoy the Ride”.

How many people are now living in their cars, nobody really knows. Herrington says that there are plenty of people living in cars but “you just don’t see them … They park in certain places where the cops can’t see them.”

He put GroundUp in contact with Beryl, who is 71. She did not want her full name published.

Beryl has lived for the past year with her 37-year-old son in a four-door sedan.

“It’s driving my son crazy,” she says.

They were each fined R300 for sleeping in the vehicle. “I can’t pay it,” she says. She has a court date in September.

Beryl has her old age grant and occasionally gets work, such as dog sitting. She spends about R450 a month on petrol for the car. “If you don’t drive it every day, the battery goes flat,” she says.

They have a gas stove for cooking and two small solar panels for charging devices. She swims in the sea and showers on the beach if it’s not too cold.

“I didn’t choose to be where I am,” she says.

First published by GroundUp.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • talfrynharris says:

    Been there! It’s not lekker but accommodation is expensive, especially in Cape Town. Fortunately it was not for a long time. I can understand that it irks ratepayers to be working like an ox for their house when car-dwellers are living “rent free”. Also some car-dwellers throw out their bags of rubbish onto the street. Nevertheless, if we want to be a society that cares about people then provision should be made for safe places to park, with facilities. Issuing fines just criminalizes poverty. Homelessness is rarely a choice and is a symptom of a brutal economic and social system where those who steal billions are still free to enjoy their loot.

  • Chris Herselman says:

    DM recently reported on the tent “villages” that are popping up all over Cape Town, most of them on public spaces. I often drive by some of these in Plumstead (two guys even took over the covered bench at a bus stop, with a mass of belongings). Are they fined too? Does not seem so, the ones in Plumstead have been there for quite a while.

    • talfrynharris says:

      The double standard that you point out is unfair, but nevertheless understandable. Car dwellers are more likely to be fined because its assumed they have more money than tent-dwellers, and they have a licence plate which can be tracked down if they don’t show up in court. How can you issue summons to a tent dweller? Address: “Bus shelter, Plumstead”?. Your chances of getting a tent-dweller to show up in court are slim, unless you hold them in custody for months.

  • Brandon VE says:

    Just live in your car in a nicer place. Why choose the most expensive city in SA to try and live in as a homeless person. You’re setting yourself up for failure.

    • Elizabeth Pearson says:

      Found this quote from English philosopher Herbert Spencer “There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance – that principle is contempt prior to investigation”. Have you ever been in his shoes?

    • talfrynharris says:

      Well Cape Town might be their home, and a place where they have some social support and business networks. Why should they leave? Also for most types of work there are going to be more opportunities for income in big cities. If you are living in your car you probably can’t afford to drive hundreds of km to the next big metropolitan area where you might not know anybody.

  • Peter Underwood says:

    It’s no different here in UK, except for the weather, and it’s going to get a lot worse as winter comes around – my electricity bill is going to £400/mth and more. Be grateful for your sun. I lived in Simons Town for a decade and miss it terribly – when it’s warm here, like now, the Brits still complain, you can’t win 50 degs north of the equator.

  • Teresa Van den Berg says:

    Double standards, shame on you, City of Cape Town, citizens and so-called do-gooders! Homeless people are allowed to set up makeshift tents, shacks and are given tents and materials to build hones on public spaces and sidewalks and are defended in court, whilst these poor people have nowhere to go. Anyone who has ever slept in a car will know you might as well climb in your fridge for the night. When Covid hit the City was quick to move homeless people to unused areas and set up space and ablution for them. Why can’t this be set up for these people who are presently living in their cars and where are the do-gooders who hand out tents and building materials to help them too? At least some of them seem to be able to work and offer service. Make opportunities available to them too instead of criminalizing them. I ‘d rather see legitimate safe spaces set out for them than the random setting up of homes on public open spaces, with no ablution, which have become an eyesore and stain on this beautiful city. Also, I am sure, many of them lived here long before some of the present population have and contributed to taxes.

  • Penelope Meyer says:

    I have also been just days away from homelessness and it was only very good luck that prevented that. Please think twice before you judge, this really is not a choice. What we need in this country is more compassion and less judgement.

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