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Where being poor is a crime

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Where being poor is a crime

In South Africa the poor, who are actually the majority, are often treated like criminals and their human rights are trampled underfoot. This is a long way from the promise of freedom and equality that came with the end of Apartheid, says Kelebogile Motswatswa.

The South African Constitution is lauded for being one of the most progressive in the world, mostly because of the participatory nature of our democracy and the delineation of human rights. Our Constitution places the onus on the state to ensure that all South Africans are liberated from the heinous clutches of historical and structural inequalities.

Yet, there is a painfully stark contrast between the values that our Constitution is predicated upon and the lived experiences of the poor and homeless. The fundamental tenets of our Constitution include human dignity and social justice, but the incrimination of the poverty-stricken is a devastating affront to these very tenets.

On 2 January, South Africa ushered in the New Year on a tragic note; our Houses of Parliament in Cape Town were engulfed in searing flames, which firefighters struggled to tame. More than in the fire itself, the tragedy lies in who was arrested for the inferno. As I write this, Zandile Mafe faces charges of housebreaking, theft, arson and additional charges under the National Key Points Act, which is related to the protection of significant infrastructure in South Africa.

Who is Zandile Mafe? As articulated by his lawyer, who has been helping him on a pro bono basis, Mafe is “a poor man, without any assets”, who has been made a “scapegoat for the failure of the executive and legislature”.

It appears that Mafe was accused on the basis of the fact that he was found sleeping outside the Parliament building. It was initially believed that he was homeless, but it was later revealed that he has a fixed address in Khayelitsha, the largest township in Cape Town. In a mission to find evidence linking him to the fire, police officers ransacked his shack in Khayelitsha, but to no avail.

Watching this story unfold, waiting for more news on the pending investigation, I find myself pondering about the unfair criminalisation of the poor and homeless in this country. The fact that Mafe was arrested so quickly, with very little evidence, truly illustrates the anti-poor perspectives that dehumanise those on the far fringes of society; those who are so visible yet are unseen; whose voices are often subdued by their deprivation. 

“We might be poor, but we aren’t stupid; we can see what is at play here,” Mafe’s niece has commented.

High scores on the Gini coefficient

South Africa is notorious for scoring high on the Gini coefficient. Ours is a society plagued by an embarrassing degree of inequality, especially in terms of income and quality of life. The gap between the rich and the poor in this country is glaringly wide. As we all know, the reason for this is Apartheid, which manufactured poverty through draconian laws. Twenty-seven years into our democracy, this chasm in lived experiences, which is a fixed trait of South Africa’s socio-economic personality, has lingered in the most pernicious of ways.

According to the World Bank, 55.5% of South Africans are poor. They have little to no access to quality education, healthcare and sanitation. Moreover, they are faced with domestic instability, which marginalises them even further.

Some have tried to move to the urban areas to try to make a living for themselves and their families, but soon enough find themselves roofless and houseless, due to limited employment opportunities and a paucity of affordable and adequate housing. Other factors that lead to homelessness include mental illness and substance abuse.

We’ve become so inured and de-sensitised to homelessness in this country. I always see someone begging at every traffic light on main roads in Johannesburg. It is incredibly distressing to behold my fellow citizens living in conditions that belie the basic human rights outlined in the Constitution.

They fight for meaning in the emptiness and forge a life out of nothingness whilst being looked upon by privileged spectators, perceived as idle marauders of time and space. In a corner with all their belongings, they sit around the crackling fire of their poverty – their dignity invisible.

Johannesburg and Cape Town are the epicentres of homelessness in South Africa. According to one reporter, Johannesburg has about 15,000 street dwellers, and Cape Town has over 14,000. Since the pandemic started, NGOs have reported exponential growth in these numbers, “due to job losses and other knock-on effects of the virus”.

In Cape Town, the marginalisation and criminalisation of the dispossessed have been perpetuated by little action from the municipality. The unhoused are often evicted from spaces they’ve sought to make a home, and their belongings violently confiscated without warning.

Treated with disdain

On 23 August last year, homeless persons living in Sea Point, Cape Town were forcefully removed by city officials at short notice, and their tents were dismantled. Edwin Kelebone, one of the people who was evicted, said that they were caught completely off-guard.

Oscar Kalama, who wasn’t there when ‘Tent City’ was being raided, returned to find that his medication for a stomach condition had been taken away. “I went to speak to one of the captains and I asked them to give me my tablets, [but] they said there was nothing they could do.”

In addition to what advocacy groups such as Ndifuna Ukwazi call ‘unlawful evictions’, homeless people are often treated with disdain and little regard for their rights as citizens of an ostensibly democratic nation.

Some have even reported ill-treatment and disrespect from social workers, who are meant to help them find suitable shelter and access to healthcare or anything else they need. “Even though we’re staying like this, it doesn’t mean we are not people,” said Lindzay Geneva, who lives on the streets of Rondebosch, one of the most affluent suburbs in Cape Town.

In a statement regarding the parliament fire, President Cyril Ramaphosa said he was “deeply saddened by the scenes all of us are witnessing today as flames engulf the home of our democracy in the precinct of Parliament. This is a disastrous event that should sadden all of us.”

It is my wish that we would all express these very sentiments in relation to the poor and homeless. In so far as the lives of the destitute do not reflect the values of human dignity and social justice foregrounded in our Constitution, South Africa is far from being a land of possibilities and a land of the truly liberated.

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