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There is ample state and municipal land in Cape Town to...

Defend Truth

Opinionista

There is ample state and municipal land in Cape Town to build affordable housing for the homeless

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Mark Rountree is a scientist, water resource specialist and accidental politician. He is currently the National Policy Officer for Good: www.forgood.org.za

Selling off state land while thousands remain without a secure place to live is a gross injustice. South African cities need more shelters to accommodate the homeless. We need a variety of shelter types and more social support systems to help those with addiction and mental health challenges so that we can reintegrate people into their communities.

Elton Present (37) and Fernando Williams (35) were both at work when they heard that their homes were being broken into. Again. I met them a few hours after their places had been ransacked. They were depressed, but resigned to these occurrences. “It’s mos our life,” said Elton.

The Covid-19 pandemic seems to have exacerbated poverty, hunger, inequality – and possibly petty crimes too. Rising costs and declining incomes have seen many households pushed to the brink.

Kurt Bester (48) has a number of part-time jobs, but has been unable to find full-time work. The day after his 48th birthday, a woman claiming to be the new owner of the property he has lived at for years dropped off a letter. It said that this was a “first and final notice to vacate the property” and encouraged recipients to “be properly guided and make appropriate arrangements to vacate said property as a matter of urgency” – within 24 hours – failing which, they “may be removed by the appropriate authorities”.

Indeed, the next day, “appropriate authorities” arrived and began to remove Kurt’s books and other belongings from the property. And they removed his home too, because Kurt is homeless and lives in a tent. They also removed Elton and Fernando’s tents too, as they live on the same property.

The property is state-owned land – erf 7195 in Milnerton, Cape Town; a large piece of vacant land owned by the Western Cape government. The authorities undertaking the removals were City of Cape Town Councillor JP Smith’s infamous Law Enforcement Unit.

Kurt, Elton, Fernando and several others are now left to sleep out in the open, exposed to the elements. Probably not unrelated, the confiscation of their tents and belongings happened on Friday 17 September, with Cape Town’s next rain-bearing cold front scheduled to arrive on the Sunday. 

A dozen law enforcement vehicles and more than 30 City of Cape Town staff, accompanied by two ratepayer-funded contract videographers were sent to “enforce the law” against about 10 homeless people. Several of these residents have mental disabilities; some are just old and most, like Elton and Fernando, resigned to the fact that government seems not to care about them.

The scenes during and after the “enforcement” performance were gut-wrenching. A woman in her 50s screamed as her home was demolished and ransacked. When I asked the law enforcement officers for a copy of the court order or eviction notice, they refused to provide one and when I would not move from the woman’s tent that they were trying to demolish, they threatened to arrest me – alternating threats with pleas that they were “just following orders” from higher up; from you-know-who.

In spite of a court order protecting citizens of South Africa from evictions during lockdown, and with no offer of any alternative accommodation being made by the law enforcement officers, the heavily armed law enforcement overwhelmed the residents and NGO supporters, demolishing at will and taking away what they chose to.

Afterwards, the residents sat, despondent and limp, trying to muster up the energy to start over again with nothing. The very little which they had had to keep them dry and fed had been removed by the trucks.

Many people I know will be shocked by this. They believe the lies peddled by politicians that there are enough shelter spaces for the homeless in Cape Town, but the facts dispel this untruth.

Before Covid-19, the City of Cape Town counted 3,999 people living on the streets, with “1,003 funded bed spaces” and 230 spaces in Culemborg Safe Space available to shelter them – 1,233 spaces for 4,000 homeless people. NGOs estimate that the real figure exceeds 14,000 homeless, since many homeless sleep in hidden places and cannot be easily counted. Whichever estimate is used, there was already a shortage of thousands of spaces for the city’s homeless when in 2019 JP Smith’s Law Enforcement Unit began to fine and harass them.

Putting all homeless into shelters is thus obviously not the immediate solution because there are simply not enough spaces right now. This site is owned by the Western Cape government, and if it has indeed been sold, then there is another large vacant 3.2 hectare property owned by the City of Cape Town within 500 metres of the province’s property, where people could be accommodated.

But that land is being sold to developers too. The vacant 3.2 hectare erf 8353 in Bothasig, Milnerton, is to be sold to a private entity because according to the City, “no department indicated they require the site for provision of basic municipal services”.

In 2005, former president Nelson Mandela reminded us that “overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life.”

Selling off state land while thousands remain without a secure place to live is a gross injustice. South African cities need more shelters to accommodate the homeless. We need a variety of shelter types – ones that can accommodate couples, families with children and those with pets. We must have more social support systems to help those with addiction and mental health challenges so that we can reintegrate people with their communities.

We must use state land to achieve these services. Using public land for the public good is a central policy of Good. Land can be released to increase the delivery of affordable housing, so that people can afford to remain in housing and not become homeless in the first place. More affordable housing will also help to reduce existing homelessness by enabling people who are employed – like Elton and Fernando – to access well-located affordable housing. DM

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