I have quietly been watching the story of those individuals living on the railway tracks unfold.
My perception of the situation is that it serves as a perfect example of the City of Cape Town’s real policy on those experiencing homelessness and by implication, how it discriminates against the parts of the city that are on the outskirts of its financial hub (read: not affluent areas by virtue of their exclusion). I am sharing this perception in two parts.
This first part concentrates on how the situation came about and how it exposes many important aspects related to how those who are unhoused in Cape Town are viewed and treated.
For years (and, unfortunately, we have to be political here as Cape Town has been under DA rule), those who have landed up on our streets in the CBD and affluent suburbs have been called “the homeless”, and they have received “welfare services” courtesy of the Department of Social Development.
To the City, the individuals are all one and the same and are given the one-size-fits-all solution.
The picture is painted that the fault lies with the individual and they should be happy to be offered a place that gives them a roof over their head during the night and a meal a day.
There is no mention of the inhumaneness of expecting the people to live in open dormitories, exposing them to all sorts of behaviours and challenges, and then tossing them back on to the streets for 12 hours to fend for themselves.
The City has managed to keep them from becoming “backyard dwellers” and “shackers” in affluent suburbs, by virtue of by-laws and law enforcement interventions.
The same cannot be said of those who landed up on the streets on the outskirts of Cape Town or those living on the railway tracks (which, by the way, have become a problem to the City as this imposes on its devolution plans that are financially driven more than service driven).
The individuals were allowed to build shacks and were not viewed as “homeless”.
The city offers them no services.
In fact, the City has contributed to the situation by, at times, forcefully evicting some of those who refused to join the welfare cases in the City’s shelters which keep people out of public view and contribute to the City’s homeless industrial complex by providing the City with cheap labour through the national employment programmes, like the EPWP and PEP, which were meant to uplift those struggling to survive.
Those who have been evicted have often ended up in unserviced encampments on the outskirts of Cape Town, often adjacent to or near railway lines.
For example, “Flamingo Heights” and “Blikkies Dorp”. Even those it could accommodate and dropped off near Culemborg and the Castle are virtually on the railway lines.
All this wasn’t immediately obvious before Covid-19. Strandfontein came to the fore, with the voices that those experiencing homelessness subsequently found in activists and human rights groups that brought this to the attention of the public and the courts.
With the Prevention of Illegal Eviction from and Unlawful Occupation of Land Act coming into play, more and more of those on the streets, who were the “invisible homeless” hidden on the mountain, living in drains and the like, came out of hiding and started building shacks in no-go areas.
This time around, the City found itself in the precarious position of not being able to send in law enforcement to break down structures and keep the individuals on the move until they were so worn out that they would go back into hiding or move to the outskirts.
* Carlos Mesquita.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.
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