Cape Town - Following its policy and practice of instituting fines against street people since the beginning of July, the City of Cape Town is now facing a lawsuit brought by seven homeless people.
The controversial fines, which are backed by the City’s vagrancy or nuisance by-laws, caused a nationwide outcry after fines were issued to people for sleeping in public places in mid-winter.
When the matter first hit the headlines, the Community Chest, a philanthropic organisation whose main purpose is to help alleviate poverty, held discussions with key stakeholders including the SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) and various NGOs, chief executives of homeless shelters, and other figureheads fighting the cause of street people to try to find solutions.
One of those who attended the meeting was commercial lawyer Lucien Lewin, who usually acts on behalf of corporates and individuals in a variety of industries but felt so moved by the social justice element of the cause that he agreed to take on this essentially human rights case.
Lewin, who is with the firm Dingley Marshall, said on Sunday that he brought the lawsuit as he is “trying to give voiceless people a voice”.
He said he took up the cause of the homeless in a bid to use his skills to assist the marginalised and bullied members of society.
All seven plaintiffs: Carin Gelderbloem, Emily Smith, Vuyo Mbozi, Beulah Meyer, Natasha Persent, Xolani Siboxo and Patricia Geyser are described as homeless and living in the vicinity of the Cape Town CBD.
On Sunday, political parties and social justice groups commented on the lawsuit filed in the Western Cape High Court on Thursday, condemning the City’s actions as “immoral, cruel, violent anti-poor, and inhumane”.
Brett Herron, a former Cape Town mayco member for transport, now representing the opposition Good Party in the legislature, said: “The fining of homeless people is an act of extreme cruelty and inhumanity. This cruelty is compounded when law-enforcement officers confiscate the meagre belongings of the homeless people. They then expect those who are homeless and penniless to travel to the impoundment centre in Epping to retrieve their belongings after paying a fee.”
Fadiel Adams of Gatvol Capetonians said: “We support the lawsuit fully. The City of Cape Town is well aware of the extent of the poverty, but now sues people for being homeless. If anyone should be sued it is the mayor and the Mayco member for human settlements, and not the poor”.
The Western Cape ANC’s Dennis Cruywagen said: “We hope the litigants will succeed in their court action, because it’s time the City is told poor lives matter. If people are down and out and penniless, how on Earth will they have any money to pay fines?”
EFF provincial chairperson Melikhaya Xego said: “The DA-led government should concentrate on expropriation of land from the few rich individuals without compensation to redistribute it equally to all those who need it, rather than having stringent by-laws aimed at exercising intolerance of the sight of poor people in places designated for the rich, such as the city centre and the suburbs.”
The applicants tell their stories in their court bid. Gelderbloem, for instance, was born into a professional, middle-class family in Athlone before being moved to Mitchells Plain, where her mother was a teacher in the 1980s. Her father was a chef. She matriculated at Spine Road High School, and then trained and worked as a hairdresser before getting married in 2006.
A series of unfortunate circumstances, including the death of her husband after two years of marriage, saw her forced to live on the streets.
Asked for comment on the pending lawsuit, executive director for safety and security Richard Bosman said, “The City of Cape Town received the court papers on Thursday. The papers are currently with our department of legal services, and the City will respond in its answering affidavit.”