Opinion

Forced removal and fines are not solutions to our homelessness problem

Forced removal and fines are not solutions to our homelessness problem
The sight as the plane approaches Cape Town is always welcoming, especially to someone who was born in this city and who loves it dearly.

After you fly over the Hottentots Holland mountains, you see the Winelands, then the sea and then, depending on which side of the plane you are in, you might see Robben Island and Table Mountain. It is beauty personified.

But as you approach the airport and after you get off the plane, you start to see another side of Cape Town as you drive past a series of informal settlements - a misnomer if ever there was one because most of these settlements have become permanent - and the Cape Flats townships, before you get to the city centre where many tourists start their experience of the beautiful Cape Town.

In between the beauty, there is a side of the city the authorities have been failing to deal with for years. The only way they know how to deal with the many homeless people on the city streets is to remove them, often forcibly, as media reports said this week.

But removing homeless people from our streets is not something new for the City of Cape Town.

Remember in 2010, ahead of the Football World Cup, the authorities removed all the homeless people from the city’s streets.

Now we hear that they have been fining homeless people R500 each time for obstructing pavements, and other such misdemeanours. It is not small change, even to people with money. How much more of a challenge must it be to someone who has nothing?

For many years the city’s slogan was “The city that works for you”. But if you asked most people on the Cape Flats they would say this should rather have been “The city that works for some”. The "some" are those who live in the leafy suburbs where they have become used to certain privileges.

One of the privileges is not having to be bothered by homeless people.

In a city and society that is as unequal as South Africa, one could be surprised that there are only a few hundred homeless people in the central business district. Someone joked that South Africa is leading the world in at least one thing, and that is inequality.

Cape Town, with all its beauty, is one of the most unequal societies in the world. Cape Town is also a very dangerous city, but the sheltered people who live in the suburbs and the tourists who hang out in the beautiful spots of the city are not affected by the dangers of gangland shootings, incessant violence, and drug abuse.

To those who live on the Cape Flats and who sometimes never get to leave their townships - often because they cannot afford the train, bus or taxi fare - the beauty of Cape Town is something they can only imagine.

Growing up in Hanover Park many years ago, it was not unusual for us to have only one or two outings a year out of the area. In December after my dad got his bonus, my mother would take us shopping in central Cape Town and sometime during the summer we would go to Kalk Bay beach.

Both excursions were by train which, surprisingly, might have been more reliable than it is today. We were among the lucky ones; many of my friends never left Hanover Park.

Homelessness and gangsterism are manifestations of the worst kind of capitalism, which is what we have in South Africa. The rich are very rich, the poor very poor. We will only be able to deal with it if we create more opportunities to lift people out of poverty. As long as we have this kind of inequality, homelessness will be with us. We cannot get rid of it by fining people or forcibly removing them.

* Fisher is chief executive of Ikusasa Lethu Media. He’s on Twitter @rylandfisher