Don't encourage us
26 March 2017 20:49 (South Africa)
Opinionista Vanessa Burger

The dirty shame of Durban's 'clean-up' campaign of city streets

  • Vanessa Burger
    vanessa-burger.jpg
    Vanessa Burger
"A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens but its lowest ones," Nelson Mandela was quoted as saying on his release from prison in 1990. Since the great man's passing, the state has exhorted South Africans to honour Mandela's legacy of human dignity, justice, equality, and freedom from oppression. But a so-called festive “clean-up” of Durban’s city streets makes a mockery of Mandela’s sentiments.

Headlines and stories in the local Durban press this month have highlighted the stark disjuncture between Mandela’s exhortation to treat everyone with dignity and the harsh reality on the streets.

"Street children, beggars and prostitutes are to be removed from Durban’s streets for the duration of the festive season in a move by the eThekwini Municipality to reduce crime for tourists," read a story headlined "Durban streets to be cleaned up for visitors” published in The Mercury 16 December 2013.

Even worse was the disparity between the eThekwini Municipality and state institutions' historical actions against these 'social outcasts'; and the soothing solutions proffered for their salvation - or big fat lies in other words.

During some of Durban's other 'clean up' operations, police have apprehended sex workers and dumped them outside the city limits, which has resulted in their assault, murder, or as recently occurred in Clairwood, rape.

Martin Xaba, Head of Safer Cities, claims in the article that sex workers will be exposed to "therapeutic support and rehabilitation programmes". By force? Not only is this statement disingenuous, given the very few support agencies' limited resources, but it smacks of selective application of the law and implementation of a 'morality police'.

As often cited by law enforcement, unless sex workers are caught in flagrante and money is witnessed changing hands, they can at most, be charged with loitering. So how will the city lawfully justify hauling large numbers of female 'loiterers' off for compulsory 'therapeutic support' (whatever that means)? And what measures will be used to define a sex worker? The shortness of her skirt? Her location? God help any sexy young woman who's in the wrong place at the wrong time over Durban's festive season!

Apart from the obvious concerns of where the eThekwini Municipality intends hiding the city's 'undesirables', Deputy Mayor, Nomvuzo Shabalala and Martin Xaba's other claims need closer scrutiny.

Shabalala states "the municipality had always taken care of street children... taken them to reception centres and had programmes that reunited them with their families."

Street children and vagrants are indeed regularly rounded up - adults and minors together in police vehicles (a contravention of the Child Protection Act) - and dumped, sometimes as far away as Verulam or Pietermaritzburg.

A former street child described an incident prior to the 2010 Soccer World Cup in which one of the unfortunates in a group of detainees, was an elderly asthma sufferer. Because of the crowd crushed into the van and his frailty, he ended up beneath everyone else. The police reportedly pepper-sprayed the occupants prior to locking the van's doors. On reaching this particular "reception centre" - a deserted area near Pietermaritzburg - the elderly man was DOA, apparently suffocated.

State rehabilitation centres, Children's Courts and Department of Social Development welfare programmes are notoriously under-resourced and inadequate.

I have personally struggled unsuccessfully for eleven months to assist minors through this system and am aware of cases that, eight years later, remain unresolved. The city's claims therefore, that street kids will be processed, their cases investigated and then reunited with their parents, all within the four week festive period, are entirely the realm of fantasy.

Xaba's claims the intervention is intended, "..to ensure that parents take full responsibility for their children," suggests an appalling ignorance of most street children's reality. Many having run away because their parents have died, or they face abuse or starvation. The very last thing they want, therefore, is to go home.

Xaba further alludes to street kids being held in "custody" while their cases are investigated. There are precious few reputable facilities so where will they be held? In overflowing prisons with hardened criminals? On what charges? Poverty?

Our city officials' obvious ignorance of state rehabilitation centres is equally depressing. Substance abusers wait a minimum of three months for admittance into state facilities, with waiting periods of a year not being uncommon. In addition, current detox programmes are unsuitable for the treatment of heroin addiction - at R29 a hit, heroin-based whoonga is the drug of choice of most poor people - which results in an extremely high relapse rate.

A large percentage of the displaced population of 'Whoonga Park' (near Che Guevara Street and Albert Park) - 'illegal' immigrants, women and children amongst them - are riddled with HIV, TB and other illnesses. Almost all are heroin addicts. Most have turned to prostitution or hard-core crime to support their habit.

Despite the eThekwini mayor, SAPS provincial management and the MEC for Transport, Community Safety and Liaison having been warned of the enormity of the social crisis developing at Whoonga Park, fencing the area has to date proved their only solution. Metro Police now regularly use tear-gas, water canons and police dogs to disperse these 'undesirables', some of whom have become high ranking Numbers Gang members.

According to media reports earlier this year, police discovered the underground storm water system linking Glenwood to the harbour, was being used as a conduit to smuggle drugs and 'illegal' immigrants. To prevent this, the eThekwini Municipality undertook to seal the entrances. Eyewitnesses claim that while municipal workers were recently engaged in this project, a suspect, allegedly while evading arrest during a Metro Police raid near Whoonga Park, fled down one such sewer.

It was reported that the municipal team halted work and demanded the extraction of the suspect. However it was claimed that Metro Police ordered work to continue - allegedly with the support of the local ward councilor, to whom the matter was at the time apparently reported - thus effectively entombing the suspect. This incident however remains unconfirmed and witnesses have since refused to discuss it further, citing fear of reprisals.

Does the city really intend rehabilitating these people too?

Whether this incident occurred or not, does not detract from the numerous other reports of human rights abuses perpetrated during previous 'clean-up' campaigns. City officials' sudden commitment to social justice therefore appears astoundingly out of character.

The R2 billion wasted municipal expenditure revealed in the Manase Report, also discredits the city's claim of a "lack of resources" as justification for their inability to extend of this social development strategy beyond the festive season.

Madiba told us; "Let us give practical recognition to the injustices of the past, by building a future based on equality and social justice”. However, 'dump-the-undesirables-and-run-then-deny-it' has been our 'caring, world class city's' social agenda to date. Then hope like hell the buggers don't make it back to the city and upset the sensibilities and flow of funds from the purses of well-heeled tourists before the end of the holiday season.

Yeah, the eThekwini Municipality's commitment to the Madiba legacy - a real class act. DM

  • Vanessa Burger
    vanessa-burger.jpg
    Vanessa Burger

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