Opinionista Jackie Dugard & Kathleen Hardy 11 January 2013

Ekuthuleni: ‘Place of peace’ by name but a shelter it is not

The City of Johannesburg has responded to two Constitutional Court judgments obliging it to assist poor people displaced by its inner city development plans by providing shelters in which conditions are dehumanising.

At 8:00 on Christmas day, like every day since May, Ellen and her grandchild, Ayanda, were locked out of the shelter in which they live. They were only allowed to return at 17:30. 

Ellen, Ayanda and 32 other people live at the Ekuthuleni Shelter in central Johannesburg. Incongruously named “the place of peace”, the shelter is the accommodation provided to some of the 100 people who, last year, successfully challenged the City of Johannesburg’s housing policy in court. Finding the city’s failure to plan for poor people evicted by private landlords and developers to be unconstitutional, the Constitutional Court ordered the city to provide alternative accommodation to Ellen, Ayanda and the other residents of a disused factory on Saratoga Avenue, Berea. The alternative accommodation selected by the City of Johannesburg for people who were unable to pay the minimum of R600 a month rental charged elsewhere, is Ekuthuleni.

Ellen is an informal trader. She makes about R500 each month selling sheets, hats and socks and other small goods from a stall on the corner of King George and Bok streets. After six grinding years of litigation, Ellen and Ayanda had hoped that their long quest for a peaceful, secure zone of privacy and dignity – a place to call home – had come to an end. But it was not to be.

Locked out of Ekuthuleni during the day, when Ellen is not at her stall, she is forced to roam the streets of the inner city or sit in public parks waiting for the shelter to re-open.  When Ayanda is sick, Ellen must care for her on the streets. When it rains, they must take shelter on the verandas of buildings. When they need to eat, they must buy food, because their own food is locked in the shelter, and they have nowhere to cook it anyway. When there is no money, they go hungry.

The impact of this city-enforced daytime lockout rule has many humiliating and perverse ramifications. Nursing mothers must nurse on the streets. Security guards working nightshifts must sleep on the streets. Men, women and children who need to bathe, urinate or wash clothes during the day must do so on the streets.

And it doesn’t end there. When Ellen goes back to her room at night, she often finds that her possessions have been searched by the shelter staff. Married couples who moved to the shelter together must sleep separately because no family quarters are provided. And all the time, the city repeatedly threatens to evict them all, because it is not willing to provide even these prison-like conditions for more than six months. That is how long it gives the residents to “transform” into pay-as-you-go citizen who can afford market-related rentals, as if in this period they will somehow be able to defeat the structural poverty which brought them to the shelter in the first place.

The City of Johannesburg evidently has a blind spot when it comes to its poorest citizens. When its inner city regeneration programme was first implemented, it was premised on the idea that “bad” buildings would be “closed down”, their occupants would be evicted and, so the city hoped, would simply disappear. It has taken two Constitutional Court judgments to press the city to face up to its obligations to assist poor people displaced by its plans to redevelop the Johannesburg CBD and its surrounds, particularly through private-sector investment and development.

But the city’s response to these judgments now seems to be to transform its indifference to antagonism. Shelters such as Ekuthuleni humiliate, degrade and make their occupants so uncomfortable that they are likely to give up and seek accommodation elsewhere – under a bridge, in a shack or in another “bad” building – anywhere, so long as the city has no responsibility towards them. Until, of course, they come to be evicted again.

However, in this case Ellen and the other occupants of the shelter are not giving up. They want the oppressive conditions they live in declared unlawful, and are suing the city again. So, early this year, a court will again have to decide whether the city can carry on treating its poorest citizens as non-people. The humane, just and constitutional answer seems obvious, but we will have to wait and see how the courts respond. In the meantime, Ellen, Ayanda and the other residents of Ekuthuleni will continue to be locked out of their homes every day. DM


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