Defend Truth


The City of Cape Town must take real responsibility for the crisis of homelessness


Brett Herron is the Secretary-General of GOOD and a Member of the National Assembly.

Cape Town’s policy on homelessness, which effectively amounts to trying to maintain control of public spaces through policing, is as ineffective as applying a Band-Aid strip to the body of a patient with multiple fractures.

The City of Cape Town is tinkering around the edges of a crisis of homelessness that will continue to grow until it pauses to contemplate the reasons people are desperate enough to choose to live on the streets and develops programmes to address their circumstances. 

The reasons are varied and complex, requiring a variety of complex interventions, including the provision of temporary accommodation linked to appropriate psychosocial services and skills development programmes aimed at creating pathways out of homelessness.

Part of the complexity is the density of communities on the Cape Flats. Since people of colour were forced to live in areas like Manenberg, Nyanga and Hanover Park, there’s been little to no provision for natural population expansion. Two and three generations later, the most visual development in these neighbourhoods has been the proliferation of backyard shacks and Wendy houses.

People end up on the streets because they are thrown out of their homes as a consequence of substance abuse, or overcrowding, or because they cant contribute to the rent, or because they have psychological or intellectual challenges, or because they are desperate to pick up crumbs cast away by the urban economy.

Then theres what former Western Cape Premier Helen Zille characterised as a “refugee” crisis from the Eastern Cape, which social scientists around the world term urbanisation”. Urbanisation is a global phenomenon. According to the World Bank, about 56% of the global population lives in cities today. By 2050, the number will increase to nearly 70%.

Challenges of urbanisation

The pace of urbanisation in South Africa has been rapid over the past 30 years since the apartheid laws that criminalised the free movement of people of colour were abolished.

“The speed and scale of urbanisation bring challenges, such as meeting accelerated demand for affordable housing, viable infrastructure including transport systems, basic services, and jobs, particularly for the nearly one billion urban poor who live in informal settlements to be near opportunities,” the World Bank commented this month in an updated overview of urban development.

Theres no arguing with that. But then theres the point Zille failed to mention: cities derive economic benefits from growth; the challenge is to harness the benefits well.

As the World Bank put it, “With more than 80% of global GDP generated in cities, urbanisation can contribute to sustainable growth through increased productivity and innovation if managed well.”

Cape Towns current policy on homelessness, which effectively amounts to trying to maintain control of public spaces through policing, is as ineffective as applying a Band-Aid strip to the body of a patient with multiple fractures.

Dont be fooled by the breathless mayoral announcement of a few hundred more shelter beds. To comply with national constitutional obligations on security of tenure, and justify its law-enforcement officers carrying out evictions, the city needs to be able to argue that shelter beds are available.

All cities do it differently.

Take New York City, for example. It’s the only major US city which guarantees the right to shelter. The guarantee stems from a 1979 court interpretation of the New York State Constitution which says, “The aid, care and support of the needy are public concerns and shall be provided by the state and by such of its subdivisions.” 

According to The New York Times, as of last week, 61,000 migrants had come to the city over the past year with more than 37,500 presently in city care at more than 120 emergency and eight large-scale shelters in buildings owned or leased by the city, including an array of motels and hotels. 

Many of these people are of South and Central American origin.

Another 10,000 people live in shelters run by agencies other than the Department of Homeless Services. 

The shelters dont provide permanent homes; it’s an ongoing task for the city to provide homeless people with the type of support necessary to enable their movement through the system. Of course, it’s a fundamental role of all cities to ensure that the development of infrastructure keeps pace with inward migration. 

New York is bigger and richer than Cape Town. But the two cities do have things in common, including constitutional obligations to provide shelter. In South Africa, the right to adequate housing is entrenched in sections 26 and 28 of the Constitution.

The Grootboom case

Arguably, the most widely cited judgment in the history of South Africas Constitutional Court involved the right to shelter of a Cape Town woman, Irene Grootboom. Grootboom was one of 900 members of a community who were evicted from shacks erected on a piece of land earmarked by the government for the development of housing. 

After moving on to a muddy sports field in the dead of winter, the community filed an application to compel the city to fulfil its constitutional obligations to provide alternative accommodation. The application was successful, but was taken on appeal and wound its way to the Constitutional Court.

The court found that the state must take reasonable legislative and other measures within its available resources to achieve the progressive realisation of citizens’ rights to housing. 

Dr Sanya Samtani of the Department of International and Constitutional Law at the University of Pretoria reported in a blog on the International Association of Constitutional Law’s website that by June last year, the Grootboom case had been cited on about 62 separate occasions by the Constitutional Court, 25 occasions by the Supreme Court of Appeal, and 114 occasions by high courts across South Africa. 

Internationally, the decision has been cited by courts in Australia, England and Wales, India, Namibia and New Zealand, as well as by the European Court of Human Rights.

The proof of the pudding, however, is not the number of citations but the actual differences the judgment makes to the quality of life of real people.

Providing a few hundred more shelter beds in containers under flyover bridges — and calling it a “Safe Space” — can only be regarded as a very small part of a complex network of solutions to homelessness in Cape Town. The number of people living on the streets in Cape Town is estimated to be 14,000. The number of shelter beds is at best 3,500, according to recent information published by GroundUp

According to the mayor, the City of Cape Town plans to spend R230-million over the next three years on its Safe Space Programme. The citys total budget for this financial year is about R70-billion. 

Cape Town also owns a number of properties suitable for conversion into decent halfway homes. And the city has the financial reserves to buy buildings, if necessary, with a view to developing the type of infrastructure needed to absorb people living on the streets — backed up by the services required to rehabilitate the people back to what we regard as conventional society. 

The population of Cape Town today is estimated at around five million people. By 2050, according to CSIR projections, the population will have grown another 50% to 7½ million people. 

Where will they stay? How many more of these people will fall through the cracks and end up on the streets? 

Resolving the crisis of homelessness, for the city and homeless people themselves, requires more from Cape Town than laying on extra beds in shelters under flyovers. Instead of dreaming of an independent Western Cape homeland, the city government must invest in a future that embraces all who live in Cape Town regardless of when they settled there. 

The city must invest in programmes to support people to get off the streets. Equally pressing is investing in programmes that begin to narrow the gap in the quality of citizens’ lives across the city. To enable dignified lives for all people. 

Human beings are in a constant state of evolutionary flux, and so are the spaces in which more and more of us live. Cities that fail to accommodate the flow of people — whether they arrive to escape conflict, in search of economic opportunities, or because they were born into sociospatial poverty — do so at their peril. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • David Mark says:

    Who in the current CT government “dreams of an independent Western Cape homeland”?

  • Sydney Kaye says:

    The flight from the Eastern Cape to Cape Town is not the usual urbanization since there are cities in the Eastern Cape to which those rural dwellers could move. It is to escape from the ANC disaster to a city with some opportunity to earn at least something. The irony is that some then vote ANC. Go figure!

  • Arthur Lilford says:

    Good to see the article – perhaps one can be written for all the major metropoles – JHB PTA DBN BLM looking at the plight of homelessness everywhere – we all know that the current situation of national government is mostly to blame and their inability to build anything except their own bank balances

  • Derek Hebbert says:

    I find it ironic that a member of the Good Party of Patricia Delille has the audacity to talk about available land. Correct me if I am wrong but I seem to recall that Aunty Pat when she was with the DA ( her 4th political home?) was harassing the ANC to hand over the Wingfield property in Goodwood for affordable housing. Then when she got the Cabinet portfolio , no doubt as a reward for colluding with the ANC by forming yet another party to dilute the DA vote in Cape Town, dealing with just this issue suddenly was no longer on the table. One wonders why he hasn’t insisted, as she did as a DA member, that the National Government hand over the vacant land , which is well situated, to develop affordable housing. I am so tired of this the political shape shifter doing all she can to be relevant.

  • Evan Booyens says:

    Please balance this with an article on the “at least 15,000” homeless in Johannesburg and only 3 shelters there. The other reason for the “refugees” from Eastern Cape is that they are transported to Capetown by the ANC with a false promise of jobs, in the hope that they will change the balance of votes in Capetown away from the DA.

  • Rob Blake says:

    Brett, you could do much more good (no pun intended) if you re-joined the DA. You have a lot of valid points but these are wasted coming from the political home where you reside at the moment.

  • Gray Maguire says:

    Ah Brett. You clearly don’t know the electorate as well as you think you do. You write from the perspective of one advocating for the rights of the poor and landless. But what you don’t know is that the people who vote, black, white and colored in the western cape are all equally tired of land invasions and vagrant cities springing up close to our homes with the courts blithely ignoring the rights of rate payers in favour of the homeless/land invaders. Oh yes, you sound very woke. Very man of the people. And I’m sure it helps you rub shoulders with all the right people at your political cocktail parties. But go try spin that in Mannenberg or Gugulethu and see how that goes down.

  • Shirley Gobey says:

    Amazing how everybody always points out the failings of the DA areas. As if the other parties have proved to do a better job!

  • Sandra Cleary Cleary says:

    Mr Herron says there is much that the City of Cape Town “must” do in relation to homelessness. I read the article – in vain – hoping he would set out how this should be done.

  • Miles Japhet says:

    Whilst the role of local government in dealing with theses issues is undoubted, the bigger culprit and focus should be on the ANC and its economy and governance disasters, as the source of such poverty and homelessness.

  • Sydney Kaye says:

    He mentions New York but doesn’t quote the full story in the NYT where. the Mayor has thrown up his hands in the face of being overwhelmed with the homeless and objections to use gyms, schools, halls and boats as shelters for them saying to the public “well you suggest what should be done “

  • David McCormick says:

    From the words penned, it seems that Mr Herron’s home is well protected from people wishing to erect a structure on City of Cape Town land. Unlike my home where I am in a constant battle to protect the value of my biggest asset from the grime associated with shelters.

    Mr Herron, how much Private, City, Provincial and National land value has been lost by the State because Authorities failed to protect their land from invasion? How much land tax has been lost due to land invasion? How many people have had their personal savings reduced due to land invasion?

    Mr Herron, how will the City of Cape Town fund the proposed 15000 shelters and staff contingent to care for the homeless if income from invaded land evapourates?

    I await your answers.

  • Jacki McInnes says:

    Dear Mr Herron, your article is patently opportunistic – as I’m sure you are well aware since clearly your intellect for using facts and language mischievously is intact (with apologies to that other arch bullsh*tter, GM). An in-depth piece on homelessness throughout SA in the 21st century would have been useful and appreciated. Taking a swipe at the Western Cape just shows you up for the cheap electioneer you are.

  • Jim F. says:

    Ah the eternal dickhead returns.

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