The City of Cape Town will be facing legal action after a local law firm agreed to a pro bono case, acting on behalf of seven homeless people who were issued fines for sleeping in public spaces. The City and local law enforcement have come under widespread public scrutiny and criticism recently, regarding their treatment of the homeless in Cape Town. Many argue that what the City is doing is essentially criminalising poverty and homelessness. The City, however, maintains that local law enforcement officials are rightfully enforcing the City’s bylaws and that it is not concerned with any legal action taken against it.
“The bylaws have a legitimate purpose,” said attorney Lucien Lewin, director of litigation law at the Dingley Marshall, heading the case against the City.
“If I park my big 4×4 vehicle on the pavement in front of a business owner’s premises and block people from getting in, I should be fined. The problem we have, is that they [the homeless] haven’t been putting up shacks in front of businesses or impeding the walkways.”
“One of my clients had her possessions confiscated in the early hours of the morning in the Company’s Garden when she was just sleeping. It was raining and she was trying to keep as warm as possible. The City officials simply said ‘You can’t do this – you’re blocking a walkway, littering and dumping’ but her ‘littering and dumping’ were essentially her personal items with her. They then also confiscated her possessions.”
The ANC has condemned the City of Cape Town and the Democratic Alliance for their treatment of the destitute.
“Our stance is that we support the application to go to court,” said ANC Western Cape spokesperson Dennis Cruywagen.
“For you to be fined for being down and out is criminalising being homeless and we want the City to take up its responsibility to help the homeless. These individuals have our moral support and we’ve supported them from the beginning. We were the ones who alerted the South African Human Rights Commission to their situation because we have a duty as human beings to support everyone in society.”
Lewin has indicated that his law firm is expecting to appear in court on 2 September to follow up on the case.
“It isn’t so much the bylaws as the enforcement and interpretation of them [that is the problem],” he said.
Meanwhile, Cape Town Mayor, Dan Plato has declared that the City is “not worried” about the court case.
“I’m not worried about that. We do not fine homeless people because they’re homeless. We fine them for atrocities – for what they’ve done wrong,” he said.
“I’ve seen druggies sitting on street corners injecting themselves with heroin and having sex in public spaces. Must we, as a City, just condone those wrongs? Must we say that because they’re homeless they can do whatever they want to do?”