The violence of our public spaces
- Kalim Rajab
- 30 Oct 2017 01:33 (South Africa)
One morning recently on my way to work, I noticed a man creating art on the pavement where an empty space had previously existed. The man had made use of a tossed-away old workstation and there, using what appeared to be rudimentary equipment, he’d beaver away on wooden blocks onto which he’d carve out and chisel abstract designs and lineated animals before painting them. He always seemed to be hard at work, oblivious to the world as the morning rush hour hurtled past him. At night, he would simply reconstitute his desk so that he could sleep under it. Being in one of those cars which drove past him myself, I never found time to stop. But I always liked what I saw, and after days of passivity, I resolved to try to support him. I had meant to stop by this past weekend with my little daughter; perhaps to buy for her room the geometric looking tigers he’d just finished making.
It was not to be. This past Friday he was unceremoniously charged by the metro police who bundled him up, confiscated his art and equipment, and destroyed his wooden desk. Unsurprisingly, in the fracas an altercation ensued, and he allegedly pulled out a knife, whereupon the group of policemen set upon him – “subdued”, in the polite jargon of law enforcement.
On the ward area’s Facebook page, the ward councillor congratulated the police on removing the man (and implicitly making his ward safer). He described him as a squatter. “He was pretty violent and pulled a knife on the officers as well as threw bricks at them. I think he will be taken in for psychiatric evaluation.” The councillor also posted pics pre-showdown, showing the man working on the pavement, and post-showdown, presumably to show that with all traces of the man and his works gone, that the pavement was once again fit for normal service and for people to walk down it in safety.
Most reactions to the post were positive, with several thumbs-ups. “Send him to jail,” wrote on person, “he is a criminal end of story (sic). He will be even worse if he gets on meds”. When someone who had actually experienced the man pointed out that she and her daughters had often walked past him while he peacefully made art and that he had never displayed any violent behaviour toward them, the response to her was lukewarm. A responder defended her own version of tough love, posting, “While I feel sorry for people with no home there are places like Salvation Army that will take him in.” She helpfully went on for those who wanted to assuage their guilt, “How can we help? By donating funds to places like Salvation & NOT SUPPORTING squatters on the street.”
The views of the councillor were correct, from a legal perspective. Municipal by-laws stipulate that hawkers are not allowed to sell their wares on the street without a permit (even then, permits are only granted in very few areas where they can be controlled). Indeed, in the city of Johannesburg, the police are responsible on a daily basis for getting rid of hawkers who have no permits. But from an economic and, most important, from an empathetic perspective, the councillor was woefully out of his depth.
His party, the Democratic Alliance, which now runs Johannesburg, has pinned its hopes on winning the 2019 elections on its economic blueprint for creating jobs in a country which is the most unequal in the world. The blueprint further identifies that entrepreneurial and small-scale activity, rather than from the formal sector, lies at the heart of solving the jobs crunch. And yet, actively supporting such a narrow approach to by-laws seems to completely misunderstand the economic nature of much of street-vending life and what a boon it can be for our vulnerable people.
Dilip Menon, a professor of Indian history, has witnessed first-hand the role of the streets in economically lifting India’s most poor and bemoans South African attitudes. He calls street vendors the first rung in the economic ladder, and he strongly feels policy-makers should be encouraging rather than criminalising its growth. “In India, ambition begins on the pavement, as people work their way upwards. It is essential. We [in India] already have the next generations who’ve worked their way up from the street onto the next rung, and then the next… But here in South Africa, the effect of apartheid was to create closed minds and closed spaces.” As Menon sees it, democracy, rather than transcending, has simply aped apartheid’s distorted thinking when it comes to street life.
Economics are one thing. But there is a more sinister undercurrent here, which the councillor and especially his ward community members betray in their posts. It is the arrogant assumption of entitlement; that they alone are eligible to own our public spaces, especially in affluent areas. And when I use the word ‘they’, I know I am included in such a grouping – for in modern-day South Africa ‘they’ has come to mean those who are employed, who are upwardly mobile and who are inured from the vicissitudes of real, grinding poverty.
There, but for the grace of God, go I.
Yet the silly lady who congratulated herself for her empathy in supporting shelters like the Salvation Army displayed no grace. She didn’t see the man who peacefully created art as someone desperately trying to join Menon’s ladder of ambition – she merely saw encroachment into her safe space. I saw someone who was actually adding a strand of texture to our streets by creating art. She saw something which was, at best, a cause for a lowering of standards; at worst, a potential source of criminality into her area.
There, but for the grace of God, go I.
This is what our policy-makers and our society should be saying. Yet in our attitudes and our actions we communicate precisely the opposite. The pavements are for the developed world, our actions say as we wander our pristine affluent areas. Here, we keep the developing world out. It must go elsewhere.
Somewhere, on a cold pavement, I hope the man I would have liked to have met has begun to paint again. DM