Durban - Vagrants living in stormwater culverts under the M4 southern freeway returned defiantly to their hideout just minutes after police left the area after a raid on Wednesday.
The operation was meant to catch criminals and illegal immigrants.
Metro police spokesman, Eugene Msomi, said police had blocked the three exit points of the culverts bordering Market and Khuzimphi Shezi (William) roads.
They then entered them at the other end to try to “flush” the occupants out towards the exits, to the awaiting policemen.
Despite the co-ordinated surprise raid, the vagrants gave police the slip through the tunnels and over nearby railway lines.
More than 100 of them gathered on a verge opposite Botha Park looking on as police raided the tunnels.
Police equipped with torches and gas masks entered the dirty tunnels, where the water was knee-deep in places.
Officials of the Department of Home Affairs were also on hand to help with the documentation process.
“The plan worked, but most of them (the vagrants) had managed to flee before police arrived,” Msomi said.
“The tunnels are in a terrible state, according to reports from policemen who went in. Residents have purposefully defecated at the entrance points to deter unknown people from entering,” he said.
“The tunnels are dark in some places with a stale smell lingering in the air. We could not send police dogs inside because of the dangers it posed This place is not hospitable for humans.”
The head of iTrump, Hoosen Moola, said the city’s stormwater culverts were being referred to as tunnels.
“We cannot block the culverts because it would flood the city,” he said.
“We have received information that there is illicit activities happening here. The aim is to target undocumented people and search for illegal items.”
In the past week metro police have been continually raiding the area, to no avail.
Police said it was a daily battle.
Clothes were left hanging on fencing and trees in the area. The walls around the bridges were covered with graffiti. Along the railway lines near Canal Road and underneath Maydon Road, police found more than 20 cooking pots on small charcoal fires.
Pots were abandoned when police arrived, still brewing chicken skin, beans, lentils, mealie meal and vegetables. Biscuits were found wrapped in buff tape to prevent them from getting wet in the tunnels.
Rubbish littered the area under the M4 highway and railway lines. A sprawling verge of bushes provided shelter for some of the vagrants.
At the “whoonga park” along Market Road, police pointed out an uncovered stormwater pipe that vagrants crawl into to evade arrest. A razor wire fence around an electrical substation had been cut and the enclosure used as a place to sleep.
Police vowed to continue with the daily raids.
DA executive committee member, Heinz de Boer, said there appeared to be no real solution to the vagrancy problem.
“It is a catch-22 situation,” he said.
“There were reports of people being loaded in police vehicles and dropped off 100km from the city centre. That was also not the solution.
“The municipality needs to deal with the causes of it. It needs to have a multitasked co-ordinated review.”
De Boer said that while ongoing police operations were helpful, it was not a police issue but a social one.
He added that vagrancy had been a problem worldwide for centuries.
De Boer said that though the city had a policy on street children, no policy had been tabled on vagrancy.
His advice to people: “Do not give money to beggars at intersections because it gives them a purpose to stand there every day.
“Do not leave plastic sheets or wood outside your home on refuse collection day. These items can be used by vagrants to make homes in the bushes.”
Police had also cleared vagrants from bushes in La Lucia, Virginia and Greenwood Park recently, he said.
“Petty thefts of items from residents’ properties have been on the increase.”
De Boer said vagrants liked to live in Durban because of its climate and sympathetic people. “The majority of vagrants enjoy living in the bushes and would not like to be relocated,” he said. “They enjoy the freedom.”
There are five stormwater culverts in the vicinity of Albert Park and the market area that lead into the bay at Canal Road, where vagrants live.