Shielding man wrongly accused of starting Cape Town fire from a double blow
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My decision to provide Frederick Mhangaso with accommodation and a fixed address, so that he can attend his trial from home rather than Pollsmoor Prison, has caused quite a stir.
There has been an outpouring of kindness, support and generosity but it has also brought some shady characters who tend to appear every once in a while when a case such as this hits the front pages.
If someone starts a fire on the mountain – homeless or homed – they are in the wrong.
My and our HOUSE's support for Frederick has never been one of condoning the fact that he had lit a fire to cook something. In fact, I think my words at the time were: “It was stupid and irresponsible.”
But there is another matter at play here.
People should be asking: why so many people are living on the mountain instead of why are they making fires up there.
That is easy to answer: They need to cook their food – something one normally does at home. To mountain dwellers, the mountain is their home. Why is it their home? That is the question that needs to be asked.
The contributing factors are too many to mention.
Don't even get me started on the misconception of “there’s enough shelters. They just don’t want to go because they don’t want to abide by the rules”.
That is hogwash. On the street and on the mountain, those same infringements one refers to as “rules at shelters” become laws and are punishable by imprisonment.
There are very good reasons for people not wanting to go to some of Cape Town’s shelters. I was one of those who refused, but when the opportunity for a roof over my head arose post-Strandfontein and I was given agency and treated like a human being, I grabbed it. A year later, here I still am. And no, I am not different.
As Maslow's hierarchy of needs depicts, man first seeks shelter and food before they desire anything else in life. This is true of homeless people too. Frederick was conveniently around and just perfectly placed to become a scapegoat.
Senior prosecutors decided two weeks ago that there was no evidence linking him to the fire. He was homeless and it suited some people’s agendas that he should be blamed, so that the side of homelessness society so often sees as “ugly” gets centre stage.
In fact, there have been more words written about Frederick than about the fire or the losses people refer to. How many articles were there since the charge of arson was withdrawn against him, or about the on-going investigations to find the real perpetrators?
I know people might think homeless people don’t have valuables to lose in a fire, but guess what, it’s all relative.
And for sure, having been criminalised for being homeless many times while homeless, I thought it unfair that he was set to become just another statistic – and a false one at that.
Frederick was going to be punished some more by virtue of not having a fixed address and kept in Pollsmoor for the duration of a case that could drag on for a year or two.
He had already been unjustly hounded by law enforcement agencies, the press and the public about something he did not do. I do feel it was only right to step up to the plate and ensure it was fair from the moment he stepped into a court of law and that he could have the same privilege that homed, awaiting-trialists have.
Why should he by virtue of his homelessness, again be criminalised and sit in Pollsmoor awaiting trial simply because people with political agendas saw the gap and decided it was to be the defenceless homeless foreigner that would have to take the fall? Would it be fair?
* Carlos Mesquita and a handful of others formed HAC (the Homeless Action Committee) that lobbies for the rights of the homeless. He also manages Our House in Oranjezicht, which is powered by the Community Chest.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.
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