Printer-friendly versionSend by emailPDF version Town's recent by-law, the 'City Streets, Public Places and Public Nuisance Act', not only adds to the vulnerability of the homeless, especially street children, by dispersing them to outlying locations around the city where there are no support mechanicisms, but may also lead to the criminalisation of poverty and homelessness in South Africa.

On 31 May 2006; the Cape Town City Council adopted a by-law relating to City Streets, Public Places and Public Nuisance after a vote yielded the result of 126 in favour and 82 against. The by-law deals with a range of issues such as trees in streets, control of goods offered for sale, the drying of washing on fences and boundaries, poison in streets and the conveyance of animal carcasses. The section which has been most problematic is that dealing with 'prohibited behaviour'. This includes intentionally touching another person or their property without consent, continuing to beg after someone has said no, starting or keeping a fire, erecting any form of shelter or sleepingor camping overnight and bathing or washing in public. The lumping together of human beings and toxic waste within one piece of legislation has sparked outrage in some quarters, with others taking offence at the references made to the poor and disadvantaged as 'nuisances'.

Despite the by-law having been adopted and published in the provincial gazette on June 23, 2006; a number of Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and other concerned parties raised a number of concerns with the manner in which the by-law was passed through the system so quickly as well as the fact that it seemed to be utterly contrary to the inclusive spirit of the South African Constitution. It was then decided by the city to refer the by-law for further public participation, a process which is ongoing and often seems less than transparent. A number of NGOs, including Molo Songololo, SWEAT, The Big Issue, Tutumike, One Love, the Right to Work Campaign and the South African Congress of Trade Unions (COSATU) as well as a number of others have formed a task team opposing the by-law. The task team is a coalition of organisations that work with a diverse range of interest groups in and around Cape Town, they have stated that their opposition to the by-law is not allied to party political issues, but is instead a an independent and legitimate initiative of civil society organisations to engage organs of the state in the process of constitutional democracy.

According to a joint press statement by the task team, 'Despite minor alterations and claims to the contrary from the City, this by-law remains a pernicious piece of legislation which will impact inequitably on the poorest and most vulnerable members of our communities. It undermines the legitimacy of the law-making process and makes a mockery of the notion of Cape Town as a Home for All'. Key concerns include the manner in which the by-law specifically targets marginalised and vulnerable sectors of the community, prevents the poor and unemployed from making a living on the streets, criminalises the poor and does not compliment or support broader poverty alleviation, crime prevention and development strategies. There are also concerns as to whether or not the implementation of the by-law would be in violation of such constitutionally protected rights as equality, human dignity, freedom and security of the person and freedom of movement.

The Big Issue, a member of the task team, is a socially responsible job creation project which publishes a monthly magazine, which is sold to vendors for R6 and can then be sold for R12. Vendors are then allocated pitches at various points around Cape Town (such as intersections and outside shopping malls) from which they sell the magazine.

According to Do Machin, Social Development Manager at The Big Issue, 'The provisions of this by-law are going to create a more difficult climate for vendors to do the work that supports them and their families, whilst they are in the process of trying as hard as they can to create better lives and futures for themselves and those they support'. Machin also feels that the by-laws will have a detrimental effect on the developmental work being done by various NGOs. 'From our experience at The Big Issue we know that development work with people living and working on the streets is long-term, dependent on the kind of outreach work which builds relationships of trust and includes each individual as an active partner in that work. The provisions in the by-law which allow for the fining and arrest of people who find themselves in the position of having to survive from day to day, often hour to hour, are antithetical to the development process, and will not improve the situation in the long-term, as well as being an infringement of basic human rights and dignity'.

As to why The Big Issue is member of the task team, Machin unequivocally states that 'The Big Issue's participation in the task team is based on the belief that this City and its people, especially the poorest, most marginalised and vulnerable, need and deserve something much more forward thinking, humane and realistic than this piece of legislation'.

The problem which the City Streets, Public Places and Public Nuisance by-law highlights is an insidious one which affects a number of Capetonians and is a sad remnant of our oppressive past. For some people, the poor, whether they are children or adults, are viewed as a blight, an irritation and something which is best described by the age-old adage 'out of sight, out of mind'. They are seen not as fellow human beings but rather as something dirty and unpleasant, they are described as lazy and annoying and are ignored whenever they happen to cross our paths. This class discrimination is disturbingly evident in the public submissions made to the Mayoral Committee regarding the by-law, and include such shocking sentiments as 'citizens should be able to go about their daily business unhindered by these problems, there have been many occasions when I have avoided using shopping centres due to vagrants in the parking areas and entrances' and 'the implementation of this by-law will enable law enforcement to to stop my family from being harassed by beggars, illegal car washers, car repairers, car guards and hawkers'.

The Homeless and vulnerably accommodated in Cape Town remain soft targets and if promulgated the by-law would simply add to pre-existing discriminatory practices and attitudes. Perhaps none are more vulnerable than the children who call the streets of Cape Town home. These children are misunderstood and mistrusted by the general public. According to Sandra Morreira, Director of the Homestead (a project which works specifically with street children), her biggest fear regarding the by-law is that it 'will enable the Metro police to round up the children whenever they want to, if they refuse to move on when instructed to do so and lock them up for a while. It will also give the police many more ways of hassling them and making it impossible for them to survive on the streets'.

As it is, Morreira says that there have been reports of children being forcefully removed from the CBD and dumped in Muizenberg or up Table Mountain, as well as general harassment such as pulling off their blankets and hitting the children.

Hip hop artist and founder of the Brown foundation, Ryan "Brown" Dalton spent three and a half years getting to know Cape Town's street children and now focuses on preventative work and he says that government generally employs strategies which tend to focus on getting rid of street children rather than helping them. Dalton sees the by-law as directly targeting children and adults living on the streets. 'By doing this we are criminalising the children and and introducing them to a life of crime, for very petty things. I have seen cases of children, with no history of criminal activity, being locked up for something as petty as loitering. In some of these instances the children get sent to a juvenile facility, where instead of being rehabilitated, they are introduced to gang life.' Of course, such a system then creates real criminals out of children who could have been reintegrated into society at a much lower cost.

According to Patric Solomons, Director of Molo Songololo (an NGO dealing with children's rights), 'the public has very little care for children living on the streets, they are seen as nuisances'. Molo Songololo has also received reports of children being removed from the city centre and dumped in areas such as Belville, Eerste River and Khayelitsha as well as being physically assaulted, having their possessions confiscated and officials soliciting bribes form them. Solomons says that if the by-law is promulgated the children will be harassed and criminalised and that the by-law is reactive rather than preventative. 'The by-law can be used to clean selected areas in the City of Cape Town, such an application will be equal to apartheid when certain laws applied to certain people.' Here Solomons hits upon an important point, the by-law will inevitably be selectively applied and enforced mostly in affluent areas or where there are large numbers of tourists and businesses. The by-law would make provision for people to live in informal settlements but not in doorways in the CBD, what is the difference? Whether or not the by-law is promulgated and openly enforced, one can only hope that the attitude of apathy and disdain, which many Capetonians seem to exhibit towards those who cannot afford nice houses, cars and three-ply toilet paper and are instead forced to make a life for themselves on the streets of our city. will eventually become more humane and inclusive. Until then, if you do not want to buy what they're selling or give them you're spare change, why not at least leave them with their dignity, it doesn't cost anything.

* Bronwen Dyke is assistant editor of The Big Issue Magazine in Cape Town

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