Homelessness and the eThekwini Municipality

A homeless man sifts through rubbish to find recyclable materials in Durban. Picture: Doctor Ngcobo / Independent Newspapers

A homeless man sifts through rubbish to find recyclable materials in Durban. Picture: Doctor Ngcobo / Independent Newspapers

Published Jul 10, 2024


By Dr Raymond Perrier

The Denis Hurley Centre – and I am sure other parts of civil society in Durban – welcome the news of a change in management at the highest level in eThekwini.

All of us who live in this city have watched the steady process of neglect and disintegration; but we who work on the front line with the most marginalised groups have seen how much more they have been affected by the decline in our great city.

Homelessness is a clear example. Poor management of infrastructure, failure to repair public facilities and lack of care in delivering services particularly impact on those who are poorest.

But realise that most homeless people in Durban are young men who have come to the city from rural KZN looking for work and you see that the economic degradation of Durban means that there is even less employment available for those who are seeking it and so more young men end up on our streets.

We are hopeful that the new administrators will take seriously the plight of the poor. By contrast, the response of eThekwini has over the years been erratic and random.

Occasionally, very occasionally, they use their extensive resources to do something that really makes a positive impact: such as the response during the COVID lockdown in which eThekwini led the rest of the country. Sometimes they do things that cost a lot of money and have a negative impact, such as the pointless (and potentially illegal) instructions to Metro Police to round up homeless people and drive them out of town (only for them to return a few days later).

Too often the money spent is out of proportion to the benefit received: an investigation has shown, for example, that Safer Cities under Martin Xaba has spent R9 million on toilets and showers for the homeless that are almost never clean or working.

Often they start a project in good conscience and then lose interest or focus: the area of Dalton where there are hundreds of people squatting waited for years for ablution blocks, then received them, and has now waited years for the sewage drain to be fixed. Mostly, though the response is one of neglect with the recurrent reply: “It’s not our mandate.”

Of course, it is not just about the Municipality. But COVID showed that when they act sensibly and effectively, support from business and from the general public will follow.

eThekwini also seeks partners from further afield.

There is another high profile visit this week by overseas donors wishing to help: this time from the World Bank, no less. This provides another opportunity for improvement, but not when they are fed fake information or given an unrealistic view of the true situation.

Sadly, there is a pattern of this. Outside money was used to build a much-needed block for ablutions and to support recyclers. Three years after it was finished it has still not been opened. A current project – which completely erroneously connects homelessness with climate change – is using money from the Global Cities Fund to build an utterly pointless facility in Albert Park because (I was told by the developers) “the Mayor wants a photograph”.

Well the Mayor has gone so perhaps the money can be used more wisely now. And the World Bank has been lured in with the claim that there are 16,000 homeless people in Durban. But this is based on a badly led survey that has never been published and is at odds with Safer Cities’ own survey, carried out thoroughly by HSRC in 2016, which found 4,000 homeless people.

It is almost as if there are officials in the Municipality who will say anything and promise to do anything to get money from outside donors, so they can then waste it on vanity projects that do not benefit the homeless or siphon off ‘their share’ through tenders and connections.

The moral neglect of ignoring the poor is bad enough; the moral sin of exploiting the poor for personal benefit is unspeakable.

But we have a new start. I know there are some very good officials in City Hall who want to do the right thing. I pray for our new city administrators that they will re-create a culture in which the Gandhian test is applied.

“Recall the face of the poorest and weakest person you have seen, and ask yourself if this step you contemplate is going to be any use to them.”

* Dr Raymond Perrier is Director of the Denis Hurley Centre.

** The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of IOL or Independent Media.